When medicine and spiritual beliefs intersect, it can be difficult for physicians to navigate which way to go with their patients. As we've reported previously, research has shown that more than 40 percent of patients want to discuss matters of faith with their doctors.
Meanwhile, patients have been known to respond very negatively when they perceived a physician's religious beliefs were imposed on them in a way that disregarded their own.
An example of the latter was described in a recent article published in The Atlantic, in which an atheist patient complained that his neurosurgeon engaged in an audible, explicitly Christian prayer at his bedside in the pre-operative suite.
"We hadn't talked about religion before that moment," the patient, a "hyper-rational" business-school professor, told The Atlantic. "He told me everything would be fine, and then he prayed over me like a priest doling out last rites! If I didn't understand the statistics, I would have wondered what I was getting myself into."
On the other side of the coin, doctors like C. Everett Koop, an influential United States Surgeon General who recently died at age 96, have espoused on the benefits of including prayer and the power of spirit in treating patients, noted a recent post from Spirituality & Health Connect.
In particular, the post referenced Koop's 1973 writing that said: "It used to be said in World War II that there were no atheists in foxholes ... I have found there are very few atheists among the parents of dying children. This is a time when religious faith can see a family through trying circumstances."
The answer to finding the right balance, however, may be as simple as asking patients upfront how they regard the role of faith in their healthcare experience.
While some physicians recommend taking a formal spiritual history when meeting with patients, James Tulsky, a palliative care specialist at Duke University, told The Atlantic he simply asks all patients what role, if any, faith or spirituality plays in their lives.
"I've asked it hundreds of times and have never gotten a negative response. I have received some very long or conflicted responses, but everyone has an opinion," he said. "The end result of this inquiry is that it opens up an important line of communication, and helps physicians better understand their patients' values and needs."