Study: Religious Doctors Not More Likely to Serve Poor Than the Non-Religious

Although many religions call on the faithful to “serve” their fellow man, a new survey finds that religious doctors are no more likely to practice medicine among the poor and under-served than those with no religious affiliation.

Researchers from the University of Chicago and Yale New Haven Hospital report that 31 percent of physicians who were more religious — as measured by "intrinsic religiosity" and frequency of attendance at religious services — practiced among the underserved, compared to 35 percent of physicians who described their religion as atheist, agnostic or none.

"This came as both a surprise and a disappointment," said study author Farr Curlin, MD, assistant professor of medicine at the University of Chicago, in a news release. "The Christian, Jewish, Muslim, Hindu and Buddhist scriptures all urge physicians to care for the poor, and the great majority of religious physicians describe their practice of medicine as a calling."

The authors surveyed 1,820 practicing physicians from all specialties to find out which religious, spiritual and personal factors were most often present in doctors who care for the underserved. The study, which appears in the July/August issue of the Annals of Family Medicine, includes the responses of 1,144 or 63 percent of those surveyed.

Physicians were asked if they agreed or disagreed with two statements: "I try hard to carry my religious beliefs over into all my other dealings in life," and "My whole approach to life is based on my religion." They were also asked how often they attended religious services.

Twenty-six percent of the physicians that responded to the survey reported that their patient populations are considered underserved. These physicians were younger and more likely to report working in an academic health center and receiving loan repayment in exchange for working where they do.

The study also found that physicians who strongly agreed that their religious beliefs influence their practice of medicine were more likely to report practice among the underserved.