Care for the Underserved Not Influenced by Doctors' Religious Attendance

July 31, 2007

CHICAGO -- Although religious doctors are more likely to consider medicine a calling, that doesn't translate into caring for more underserved patients, a survey has revealed.

CHICAGO, July 31 -- Although religious doctors are more likely to consider medicine a calling, that doesn't translate into caring for more underserved patients, a survey has revealed.

Whether judged by "intrinsic religiosity" or frequency of church attendance, religious doctors cared for underserved patients at about the same rate that their less religious counterparts did, according to a report in the July/August issue of Annals of Family Medicine.

In fact, doctors who reported no religious affiliation at all were the most likely to practice among underserved populations (35%). Practitioners who were self-described as highly spiritual, but not necessarily religious, also cared for more underserved patients, said Farr A. Curlin, M.D., of the University of Chicago, and colleagues.

"The present study suggests that although physicians who practice among the underserved may explain their work in religious terms, religious physicians do not appear to disproportionately care for the underserved," the authors concluded.

From the earliest days of Hippocratic medical practice, codes of medical ethics have urged physicians to care for the poor, Dr. Curlin and colleagues noted. Even so, many poor patients and communities remain medically underserved.

Physicians have a variety of motives, including religious beliefs, for practicing among underserved populations. However, the investigators said, the association between physicians' religious characteristics and work among the underserved had not been examined previously.

Dr. Curlin and colleagues conducted a mail survey of a random sample of 2,000 U.S. physicians representing a variety of clinical specialties. The researchers received 1,260 responses (63%). Overall, 26% of respondents reported that their patient populations are considered underserved.

The investigators assessed intrinsic religiosity by respondents' answers to two questions about the extent to which religious beliefs influence the physicians' lives and activities. Both questions were drawn from a validated scale for religious motivation.

Among physicians deemed to be highly religious, 29% practiced among underserved populations, compared with 22% of the moderately religious and 27% of those with low intrinsic religiosity. Of physicians who reported at least twice-monthly church-going, 26% practiced among the underserved, the same as physicians reporting less frequent church attendance and slightly less than physicians who reported no church attendance (28%).

The authors reported that 32% of highly spiritual physicians cared for the underserved versus 26% among moderate spiritual doctors and 21% of practitioners who ranked low in spirituality (P