Doctors often differ in their religious beliefs from the patients they treat every day, according to a new survey.

The study shows that doctors are about as likely to have a religious affiliation as the general population. But researchers found that doctors are more than twice as likely as their patients to identify themselves as "spiritual" rather than "religious" and cope with major problems in life without relying on God.

The study also shows that more than half of doctors say their religious beliefs influence how they practice medicine.

"We have paid a good deal of attention to the religious beliefs of patients and how their faith influences medical decisions," researcher Farr Curlin, MD, instructor in the department of medicine and a member of the MacLean Center for Clinical Medical Ethics at the University of Chicago, says in a news release. "But until now no one has looked in the same way at physicians, the other half of every doctor-patient relationship. These findings lead us to further wonder how doctors' faiths shape their clinical encounters."

Read Web MD's "Patients Want Doctors to Discuss Spirituality."

Doctors More Religious Than Expected

In the study, researchers mailed 12-page surveys to 2,000 practicing U.S. doctors in various specialties. The surveys asked about their religious beliefs, and researchers compared the responses to a 1998 general social survey of the U.S. population. The results appear in the July issue of Journal of General Internal Medicine.

About two-thirds of doctors responded to the survey; 76 percent said they believe in God and 59 percent said they believe in some sort of afterlife. That compares to 83 percent and 74 percent of the general population.

Although doctors were less likely to believe in God or an afterlife, the survey showed that 90 percent of doctors attend religious services at least once a month compared with 81 percent of their patients.

Researchers say the results were surprising because religious belief tends to decrease as education and income levels rise. In addition, they write that studies have shown that few scientists believe in God or an afterlife.

"We did not think physicians were nearly this religious," says Curlin. "We suspect that people who combine an aptitude for science with an interest in religion and an affinity for public service are particularly attracted to medicine. The responsibility to care for those who are suffering, and the rewards of helping those in need, resonate throughout most religious traditions."

Read Web MD's "Is Religion Good Medicine?"

Doctors Differ in Religious Beliefs

Researchers say that although more than 80 percent of patients describe themselves as Protestant or Catholic, only 60 percent of doctors describe themselves the same way.

That means that doctors' religious beliefs may often differ from those of their patients. For example, the survey shows:

5.3 percent of doctors are Hindu vs. 0.2 percent of nondoctors 14.1 percent of doctors are Jewish vs. 1.9 percent of nondoctors 1.2 percent of doctors are Buddhist vs. 0.2 percent of nondoctors 2.7 percent of doctors are Muslim vs. 0.5 percent of nondoctors

In addition, the study showed that the role of religion varied among doctors of different religions and medical specialties.

Fifty-five percent of doctors said that their religious beliefs influenced their practice of medicine.

Christian, Mormon, and Buddhist doctors were most likely to say that their religious beliefs influenced how they practice medicine, and Jewish and Hindu physicians were the least likely.

Doctors in family practice and pediatrics were also more likely to say that their religious beliefs carried into all of their other dealings and that they looked to God for "support and guidance." Psychiatrists and radiologists were least likely to carry their religious beliefs into the office.

Read Web MD's "Diagnosing Your Doc: What You Should Know."

By Jennifer Warner, reviewed by Brunilda Nazario, MD

SOURCES: Curlin, F. Journal of General Internal Medicine, July 2005; vol 20. News release, University of Chicago Medical Center.