Terminally ill patients who are deeply religious often get aggressive treatment in their final days, even though palliative care might be easier for them, researchers said this week.
A look at 345 cancer patients found that those who relied on religion to cope with the illness the most were more likely to get life-prolonging care in their last week than those with a lower levels of coping through faith, said Dr. Andrea Phelps and colleagues at Boston's Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center and Dana-Farber Cancer Institute.
Patients were asked at the start of the study how much they relied on religion to cope with illness. Some said they did so moderately while to others, it was the most important thing that kept them going. Over half said they prayed, meditated or studied religion at least daily.
Among the faiths of those involved in the study were Catholic, unspecified Protestant, Baptist and "other."
Life-prolonging measures can include resuscitation and use of a mechanical ventilator for breathing which can add to the cost of end-of-life care.
"It is important to recognize how religious coping factors into extremely difficult decisions confronting patients as their cancer progresses and death appears imminent," Phelps said. "Beyond turning to doctors for advice, patients often look to God for guidance in these times of crisis."
Dealing with illness through religion can in theory give patients a sense of meaning, comfort and control. But aggressive end-of-life care can be hard on both the patient and care givers, and so "might represent a negative outcome for religious copers," the team wrote in the study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association.
The Rev. Percy McCray, director of pastoral care and social services for the Cancer Treatment Centers of America, said people of faith and their families "tend to want to extend their treatment and care as long as possible because often they are attempting to give God opportunity to perform a miracle."
"I have personally seen patients who were given bleak and grim prognoses surpass and survive such outlooks to live many months and years," he told Reuters in an e-mail.
"The down side can be the mental, emotional, and possible financial drain and anxiety that can build in a prolonged hospital stay," he said.