Spirituality Influences Health, Most U.S. Doctors Say

Mar. 23 --

TUESDAY, April 10 (HealthDay News) -- The majority of American doctors think that religion and spirituality play an important role in influencing patients' health, a new review found.

And the more religious a doctor was, the more likely he or she was to have a positive view of the impact of religion and spirituality on health, according to the study by researchers at the University of Chicago.

"This study helps explain the phenomenon that, despite many studies that examine the relationship between religion and health, there is an entrenched debate and disagreement about whether there is any such relationship," said lead author Dr. Farr A. Curlin, an assistant professor of medicine.

"A big reason why this debate won't go away is because the debate is not just about the data, it's about the frames of mind people bring to the data," Curlin said.

The majority of U.S. doctors -- 56 percent -- believes that religion and spirituality influence patient's health, Curlin said. "The influence mostly helps patients cope with illness and gives them a positive state of mind," he added.

A minority of doctors -- 7 percent -- believes that religion and spirituality can have a negative influence, Curlin said. "Sometimes, these beliefs can lead patients to refuse or not go along with medically recommended therapies," he said.

Curlin noted that "most doctors don't believe that religion has an influence on hard medical outcomes -- like heart attacks, infections, etcetera. The influence is more on helping get through and cope with an illness."

In the study, published in the April 9 issue of the Archives of Internal Medicine, Curlin and his colleagues sent a survey to 1,820 doctors, and 1,144 -- 63 percent -- of them responded. Included in the survey were questions about the doctors' religious beliefs and attitudes about the positive and negative influence of religion and spirituality.

The researchers found that two-thirds of the doctors believed that illness often or always increases patients' awareness of religion and spirituality. In addition, 56 percent thought religion and spirituality had a significant influence on health. Also, 54 percent believed that, sometimes, a supernatural being intervenes in care.

Most doctors -- 85 percent -- thought that religion and spirituality was generally a positive influence, but only 6 percent thought that religion and spirituality changed medical outcomes, Curlin's team found.

Curlin's group also found that 76 percent of doctors thought religion and spirituality helped patients cope, 74 percent thought that it gave patients a positive state of mind, and 55 percent thought it gave emotional and practical support through religious community.

Only 7 percent thought religion and spirituality caused negative emotions such as guilt and anxiety, and 2 percent thought it lead patients to decline medical therapy.

In addition, Curlin said that how doctors viewed the contribution of religion and spirituality depended on their own religious beliefs. "Doctors who are not religious say that their patients don't bring up religious or spiritual issues and think that religion impacts in negative ways," he said.

"Doctors who are more religious say their patients do bring up religious issues and that religion has a positive influence," Curlin said.

Dr. Harold G. Koenig is co-director of the Center for Spirituality, Theology and Health at Duke University Medical Center. He said most doctors don't really understand the positive effects that religion can have on patient outcomes.

"There is a misconception or lack of knowledge by many physicians about the effects of religious involvement on hard outcomes, and the under-appreciation of the patients' ability to cope and patients' positive state of mind have on their physical health," Koenig said.

Physical and emotional health are connected, Koenig said. For example, stress can have effects at the cellular level, he noted. "Women under stress have their cells age about a decade faster than women not under stress," he said. "There is evidence of the effect of stress and anxiety on heart attack, on survival, stroke and high blood pressure. If nothing else, it affects patients' motivation toward recovery."

Koenig thinks doctors should be aware of a patient's spirituality. "We don't want doctors to be addressing spiritual issues with patients," he said. "But they've got to know about them and if they make a difference in their coping and in their medical decisions."

More information

For more on spirituality and health, visit the U.S. National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine.

SOURCES: Farr A. Curlin, M.D., assistant professor of medicine, University of Chicago; Harold G. Koenig, M.D., co-director, Center for Spirituality, Theology and Health, Duke University Medical Center, Durham, N.C.; April 9, 2007, Archives of Internal Medicine