Science and faith may often clash, but a new survey suggests that most American doctors
believe religion and spirituality can help patients.
Published Oct. 26 in the Archives of Internal Medicine, the survey found that 90 percent of physicians are satisfied with spiritual services provided by hospital chaplains to their patients.
While most doctors in the survey acknowledged that religion and spirituality help patients cope with illness, the study found that at least one-third of U.S. hospitals do not have chaplains, and many of those that do have chaplains don’t have enough to address all patient needs.
Consequently, doctors play a crucial role in ensuring that patients have access to chaplains, the study said. But most doctors have little training in connecting chaplains to patients, and instead rely on their own spiritual values and experiences.
About 5 percent of referrals connecting patients with chaplains come from physicians, while the rest come from nurses or patient family members, said Dr. George Fitchett, a chaplain at Rush University Medical Center in Chicago, and the study’s lead author.
“Things are changing a little,” said Dr. Fitchett. “There’s a lot of education to help physicians become better at making referrals, but it’s still not systematized.”
Fitchett said an ideal ratio of chaplains to patients is hard to pinpoint, and depends on what type of patients a hospital treats. For example, hospitals specializing in cancer patients or with emergency rooms have a greater need for chaplains than hospitals specializing in joint replacements or cosmetic surgery.
The survey also found that physicians in the Northeast and those with negative views of religion’s effects on patients were less likely to be satisfied with chaplain services.
Those who were satisfied tended to be physicians who worked in teaching hospitals, practiced medical subspecialties, such as cardiology, oncology, or emergency medicine.
Half of the physicians surveyed said it was appropriate for them to pray with patients if circumstances warranted.
Of the 1,102 physicians surveyed, 59 percent identified themselves as Christian, 16 percent Jewish, 14 percent other affiliations, and 10 percent reported having no religious affiliation.