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Study: Religion Plays a Role in Human Health

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A surprising new study published in the current issue of the Archives of Internal Medicine sought to determine the influence of religion and spirituality on human health. Their conclusion: “Patients are likely to encounter quite different opinions about the relationship between their religion and spirituality and their health, depending on the religious characteristics of their physicians.”

Researchers at the University of Chicago sent a “cross-sectional survey” to a random sampling of 2,000 practicing U.S. physicians from all specialties. The survey asked doctors to estimate how important religion and spirituality issues are to their patients, how much these issues influence health, and how that influence is manifested.

About 56 percent of all responding physicians concluded that religion and spirituality had a significant impact on health-related issues, even though only 6 percent of them believe that religion and spirituality can actually affect “hard medical outcomes.” In addition, 76 percent of physicians believe that religion and spirituality help patients to cope and a similar number feel that religion and spirituality help patients maintain a “positive state of mind.” More than half of the respondents cited the benefits of emotional and practical support provided by the religious community. Not surprisingly, roughly two-thirds of the doctors claim that illness itself can inspire an awakening of religious and spiritual issues in patients.

Although 85 percent of those surveyed feel that religion and spirituality has a net-positive effect on health, the doctors’ views were clearly shaped by their own religious tendencies. According to the researchers, “physicians with high religiosity are substantially more likely” to note the positive influence of religion on their patients’ health. The study also noted that 54 percent of respondents believe at times in the intervention of a supernatural being.

The upshot of this research: It seems likely that doctors’ religious beliefs may actually affect their clinical choices. “Physicians’ notions about the relationship between religion and spirituality and patients’ health are strongly associated with physicians’ own religious characteristics,” the authors explain. “Future studies should examine the ways physicians’ religious (and secular) commitments shape their clinical engagements in these and other domains.”

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