Religious Characteristics of U.S. Physicians
A National Survey
Farr A. Curlin, MD,1,2,3John D. Lantos, MD,4,2,3Chad J. Roach, BS,5Sarah A. Sellergren, MA,6
Marshall H. Chin, MD, MPH1,2,3
1Section of General Internal Medicine, Department of Medicine, The University of Chicago, Chicago, Ill, USA;2Robert Wood Johnson
Clinical Scholars Program, The University of Chicago, Chicago, Ill, USA;3MacLean Center for Clinical Medical Ethics, The University of
Chicago, Chicago, Ill, USA;4Section of General Pediatrics, Department of Pediatrics, The University of Chicago, Chicago, Ill, USA;5Pritzker
School of Medicine, The University of Chicago, Chicago, Ill, USA;6Committee on Human Development, Department of Psychology,
The University of Chicago, Chicago, Ill, USA.
BACKGROUND: Patients’ religious commitments and religious com-
munities are known to influence their experiences of illness and their
medical decisions. Physicians are also dynamic partners in the doctor–
patient relationship, yet little is known about the religious character-
istics of physicians or how physicians’ religious commitments shape
the clinical encounter.
OBJECTIVE: To provide a baseline description of physicians’ religious
characteristics, and to compare physicians’ characteristics with those
of the general U.S. population.
DESIGN/PARTICIPANTS: Mailed survey of a stratified random sample
of 2,000 practicing U.S. physicians. Comparable U.S. population data
are derived from the 1998 General Social Survey.
MEASUREMENTS/RESULTS: The response rate was 63%. Fifty-five
percent of physicians say their religious beliefs influence their practice
of medicine. Compared with the general population, physicians are
more likely to be affiliated with religions that are underrepresented in
the United States, less likely to say they try to carry their religious be-
liefs over into all other dealings in life (58% vs 73%), twice as likely to
consider themselves spiritual but not religious (20% vs 9%), and twice
as likely to cope with major problems in life without relying on God
(61% vs 29%).
CONCLUSIONS: Physicians’ religious characteristics are diverse and
they differ in many ways from those of the general population. Re-
searchers, medical educators, and policy makers should further exam-
ine the ways in which physicians’ religious commitments shape their
KEY WORDS: religion; physicians; spirituality; survey.
J GEN INTERN MED 2005; 20:629–634.
itual characteristics influence their health.1,2Some questions
addressed by this research remain unresolved. For example,
beliefs or practices, or different levels of spirituality, confer
some quantifiable health benefit.3–6Regarding other ques-
tions, there is consensus. For example, it is clear that patients’
influence medical decisions, assign meaning to the experi-
ences of illness, and provide resources for coping with
n recent years, an expansive medical literature has con-
sidered how and to what extent patients’ religious and spir-
In the context of this consensus, professional attention to
patients’ religious and spiritual concerns is one part of a
broader movement toward a more patient-centered,9cultural-
ly competent,8,10,11narrative,12and holistic13medicine. This
movement emphasizes the notion that patients interact with
the health care system from a specific language, culture, com-
munity, and tradition, all of which shape patients’ decisions
and experiences related to illness. Given our society’s exten-
sive ethnic, cultural, and religious diversity, it follows that
physicians must be attentive to and respectful of the ways in
which patients’ fundamental values may conflict with a phy-
sician’s deeply held convictions,8,10,11,14possibly in ways that
seem foreign or irrational to the physician.15,16
While much attention has been given to patients’ religious
and other values, little attention has been given to the way in
which physicians’ particular cultures, communities, and val-
ues may influence the clinical encounter. The American Asso-
ciation of Medical Colleges has called medical educators to
teach students how to ‘‘incorporate awareness of spirituality,
and culture beliefs and practices, into the care of patients in a
variety of clinical contexts . . . [and to] recognize that their own
spirituality, and cultural beliefs and practices, might affect the
ways they relate to, and provide care to, patients.’’17Despite
such aims, little empirical data have been available regarding
physicians’ religious characteristics, how such characteristics
compare with those of the general population, or how physi-
cians’ religious commitments shape their clinical engage-
What is known about physicians’ religious characteristics
comes primarily from studies that have been limited to family
physicians,18–20women physicians,21and physicians from a
few discrete medical centers.22These studies suggest that
family physicians are comparable to the general population
with regard to religious characteristics20and are generally
more religious than physicians from other specialties.21Yet,
the limited sampling frames of these prior studies make it dif-
ficult to generalize such findings to the broader physician pop-
ulation. The goal of this study was to provide a baseline
description of physicians’ religious characteristics, and to
compare physicians’ characteristics with those of the general
U.S. population. To do this, we surveyed a national probability
sample of physicians using multidimensional measures of re-
ligion and spirituality, and then compared physicians’ re-
sponses with those obtained on the General Social Survey
(GSS), a study of a national probability sample of U.S. house-
Accepted for publication February 1, 2005
None of the authors have any financial or other conflicts of interest to
report regarding this study or this article.
Address correspondence and requests for reprints to Farr A. Curlin:
The University of Chicago, 5841 S. Maryland Avenue, MC 2007, Chica-
go, IL 60637 (e-mail: email@example.com).
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Curlin et al., Religious Characteristics of U.S. Physicians