Doctor, Will You Pray for Me? Responding to Patients’ Religious and Spiritual Concerns

Klitzman, Robert L.

Religion and spirituality in the United States have been shifting, and physicians are treating patients with increasingly diverse beliefs. Physicians' unfamiliarity with these beliefs poses critical challenges for medical education and practice. Despite efforts to improve medical education in religion/spirituality, most doctors feel their training in these areas is inadequate. This article draws on the author's conversations with providers and patients over several years in various clinical and research contexts in which religious/spiritual issues have arisen. These conversations provided insights into how patients and their families commonly, and often unexpectedly, make religious/spiritual comments to their providers or question their providers about these topics, directly or indirectly. Comments are of at least 9 types that fall within 4 broad domains: (1) perceiving God's role in disease and treatment (in causing disease, affecting treatment outcomes, and knowing disease outcomes), (2) making medical decisions (seeking God's help in making these decisions and determining types/extents of treatment), (3) interacting with providers (ascertaining providers' beliefs, having preferences regarding providers, and requesting prayer with or by providers), and (4) pondering an afterlife. Because of their beliefs or lack of knowledge, doctors face challenges in responding and often do so in 1 of 4 broad ways: (1) not commenting, (2) asking strictly medical questions, (3) referring the patient to a chaplain, or (4) commenting on the patient's remark. Medical education should thus encourage providers to recognize the potential significance of patients' remarks regarding these topics and to be prepared to respond, even if briefly, by developing appropriate responses to each statement type. Becoming aware of potential differences between key aspects of non-Western faiths (e.g., through case vignettes) could be helpful. Further research should examine in greater depth how patients broach these realms, how physicians respond, and how often medical school curricula mention non-Western traditions.


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April 15, 2021