Healthcare News & Insights

God vs. Medicine: How patient beliefs affect treatment


Knowing how a patient votes and where — or if — they go to church could give you as much diagnostic information as their age, gender and prior medical history, recent research shows.

No one is suggesting including political and religious questions on patient in-take forms. But it’s hard to argue that those deeply held beliefs don’t play a major part in how patients view their treatment options — especially when new, controversial therapies or end-of-life care is part of the discussion.

Two recent surveys give some indication on how political and religious beliefs can impact patients’ decisions.

Let’s start with a recent poll regarding the H1N1 vaccine: 62% of all adults planned to skip the vaccine — not that surprising. But things got interesting when the numbers were broken down by political and religious beliefs. Among self-identified Republicans, 74% planned to skip the vaccine, 68% of independents weren’t lining up for the immunization. By contrast, only 45% of Democrats were planning to skip the vaccine.

When filtered by religion, similar trends were seen: For example, 69% of “born again” Christians weren’t going to get the shot, compared to 55% of non-born again Christians. The survey was conducted by Zogby International.

Bridge or barrier?

Another recent survey asked pediatricians and pediatric oncologists how parents’ religious beliefs impacted the care they were able to give their patients.

Pediatric oncologists were much more likely to say that a family’s religious traditions were relevant to the scope of their work — particularly when an illness was deemed terminal or similarly weighty medical decisions were being considered.

But the interviews revealed that those beliefs were both “a bridge and a barrier.”

For every instance where religious or spiritual beliefs impeded care (for example, religious beliefs that disallow certain proven treatments) physicians could cite cases where the family’s faith provided answers that medicine couldn’t.

The study was published in Social Problems.

Finding the boundaries

Knowing more about patients’ philosophical approach to life can help health care providers assist them in making the best possible decisions about their individual treatment

But getting that information without appearing to dig for personal info or pass value judgments can be tricky — and its value may vary from practice to practice and patient to patient.

How should health care providers balance on that tightrope? Share your advice in the comments.

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  1. People who don’t believe in gods are pretty careful not to discuss their position because of discrimination and judgement, especially by medical staff with strong or radical religious beliefs. It’s a frightening position to be in, to need medical care, perhaps life-saving, and know that the person treating you is biased towards you, whether it’s your race, religious beliefs or lack thereof, sexual orientation, economic status, political affiliation, etc. Health care providers need to tread lightly.

  2. I agree with the need to ask patient about religion. We have in our intake form question about religion and if they are involved in church. This question open up how the patient understands his/her illness. In addition helps the clinician to have a better approachto discuss patient illness.
    About how they vote, this question is very sensitive and I believe can bring some misinterpretation.

  3. I believe a real Christian has faith in Jesus Christ that whatever treatment is necessary, they can seek guidance from Him and get the answer.

  4. A personal decision was made to skip the H1N1 vaccine at this time in my life based on a risk/benefit analysis. This happens to coincide with the fact that I typically vote Republican. However, the decision about receiving a vaccine was not influenced by either religion or politics.

    There are cases where it is appropriate to ask questions prior to certain treatments, as personal beliefs may impact a patient’s decision on receiving blood, donating organs, etc. Such questions can clearly be asked without the need of asking the particular religion or political orientation of the patient or of the patient’s parents. Therefore, I see no reason for probing into a person’s personal beliefs any further than is necessary and directly relevant to the health care options at hand.

  5. Rev. William Shirk,M.Div., BCC says:

    A number of respected clinical trials over the past ten years have had the result of convincing many in the medical field that patients of authentic religious faith on average actually experience better outcomes in the hospital, including less pain after surgery, less ventalatory assist, lower overall severity scores, earlier dischargee, living longer, and other beneficial effects than patients who practice no religion. It is not doctrine that makes the difference, it is deeply held belief. There are hundreds of studies showing this: see the four volumes of The Faith Factor: An Annotated Bibliography of Clinical Research on Spiritual Subjects put out by the National Institute for Healthcare Research. Fascinating reading. (The author of the article apparently does not know that “religious questions” ARE included on most hospital intake forms, and some sort of “spiritual care” for patients is mandated by hospital regulatory boards, HIPAA, and monitored by Press-Ganey post-stay questionaires. In 25 years working in various hospitals as a board certified chaplain I have NEVER heard any reference to politics having an impact on health. Although I must comment that most politicians DO make me sick.)

  6. chris VanDenburgh says:

    Joint Commission on Accreditation of Healthcare Organizations (JCAHO) has required that a spiritual assessment be done for each patient. Although only a brief assessment is required, the spiritual assessment should include the following three specific areas: (a) denomination or faith tradition, (b) significant spiritual beliefs, and (c) important spiritual practices. Spiritual assessment, as well as a physical assessment, should be an ongoing process and should be continued throughout a patient’s care.
    Many research studies have been conducted that demonstrate better patient outcomes when spirituality and religion are taken into consideration.