When I wrote my essay “Prayer from a Closeted Christian” (in What I Learned In Medical School) at the end of the late 1990’s there was not a great deal of information around about religious beliefs of physicians. There had been and continues to be, a good bit of attention paid to the religious beliefs of patients and their families especially as they relate to treatments and outcomes, but few have looked at religious attitudes among physicians themselves. During medical school I struggled, as I realize now that many of my classmates may have as well, with how faith would fit into my new professional life. I struggled most on the wards when patients started talking about their own faiths and I did not know to what extent I could respond and participate without appearing unprofessional in some way.
I fully accept that part of this was immaturity in my own faith. I did not lack mentors as we had professors who were openly religious (and most often Christian, which should have put me even more at ease), there was a Christian medical and Dental association present and active on campus, and several of my classmates were also very open in sharing their faith when asked, be it Christian, Jewish, Hindu, Muslim or otherwise. On the other hand I also stood silently while listening to more senior ward team members make fun of “those Christian docs who pray for miracles” and sat with a sinking feeling while hearing an academic audience actually boo when a speaker mentioned scientists who believed in creationism. I may have been immature in my ability to stand up for my faith, but my concerns were not unfounded. I figured at that time that being a Christian privately would have to do.
The public perception of physicians largely is one of scientists and caregivers, and does not include religion. However when physicians themselves are asked, the answers may surprise you. The largest study was done in 2005 by the University of Chicago and found interestingly that a large percentage of physicians did identify with being religious. The study in fact openly said the results were “not anticipated,” and showed that 90% of surveyed physicians reported attending a religious service at least occasionally, 76% believe in God and 59% in an afterlife of some sort. Those percentages were higher than in any other science-based professions, as documented in prior studies.
My personal religious life has matured but I am still cautious professionally. I do pray with patients and discuss my faith when asked, but aside from those circumstances I keep it private. That is my decision, whereas I have colleagues who ask all patients if they would like a prayer and others for whom religion of any type never raises its head in professional life. My patients with whom I pray appear grateful to share this part of their lives with me and I am always honored. But I wonder about my patients with whom I do not share Christian faith, or any faith, and whether or not this affects our doctor-patient relationship. It’s an answer I do not yet know, but may be yet another part of this journey which I have yet to traverse.
Do you have a personal faith that you keep private or share in your professional workplace? Have you found it a positive experience or not, especially in regard to your students, patients or clients?