Providing Guidance to Patients: Physicians’ Views About the Relative Responsibilities of Doctors and Religious Communities

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Patients’ religious communities often influence their medical decisions. To date, no study has examined what physicians think about the responsibilities borne by religious communities to provide guidance to patients in different clinical contexts.


We mailed a confidential, self-administered survey to a stratified random sample of 1504 US primary care physicians (PCPs). Criterion variables were PCPs’ assessment of the responsibility that physicians and religious communities bear in providing guidance to patients in four different clinical scenarios. Predictors were physicians’ demographic and religious characteristics.


The overall response rate was 63%. PCPs indicated that once all medical options have been presented, physicians and religious communities both are responsible for providing guidance to patients about which option to choose (mean responsibility between “some” and “a lot” in all scenarios). Religious communities were believed to have the most responsibility in scenarios in which the patient will die within a few weeks or in which the patient faces a morally complex medical decision. PCPs who were older, Hispanic, or more religious tended to rate religious community responsibility more highly. Compared with physicians of other affiliations, evangelical Protestants tended to rate religious community responsibility highest relative to the responsibility of physicians.


PCPs ascribe more responsibility to religious communities when medicine has less to offer (death is imminent) or the patient faces a decision that science cannot settle (a morally complex decision). Physicians’ ideas about the clinical role of religious communities are associated with the religious characteristics of physicians themselves.

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