A new survey suggests the vast majority of doctors are willing to discuss religion with patients, but only about half actually initiate such conversations.
It is unlikely a physician will recommend prayer, and very unlikely he or she will pray with a patient.
"We found no consensus among physicians about what is customary or appropriate," said study author Farr Curlin, assistant professor of medicine at the University of Chicago. "Despite efforts to standardize many aspects of the doctor-patient relationship ... patients are likely to encounter very different approaches."
Curlin and colleagues attempted to survey 2,000 practicing U.S. physicians from all specialties.
Only 1,144 responded, so it is not possible to know how the results might have been skewed by those who did not respond.
It is possible, for example, that religious and spiritual physicians were more apt to respond than atheists, or vice versa.
Of those who responded, 18 percent said they were neither religious nor spiritual, while 17 percent identified themselves as being both highly religious and highly spiritual.
They were a mix of 39 percent Protestant, 22 percent Catholics, 16 percent Jewish, 13 percent from other religions and 11 percent who reported no religion.
Among the findings:
— More than 90 percent of the doctors said it is appropriate to discuss religious or spiritual issues when a patient brings them up.
— Three in four encourage patients' religious beliefs and practices.
— Half said they inquire, occasionally or more often, about a patient's faith.
— Only 10 percent routinely mention their own faith.
— Fewer than one in three endorses praying with patients.
How a physician approaches these decisions depends on his or her own religious and spiritual beliefs, the researchers found.
For example, 76 percent of the most religious doctors ask about their patients' beliefs, though only 23 percent of minimally religious physicians did so.
Protestant doctors were the most likely to inquire about a patient's beliefs and the most likely to pray with patients.
"The close ties between belief and behavior ... suggests that physicians are unlikely to reach agreement any time soon about what is suitable," Curlin said.
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