Objective: To identify the preferences and concerns of seriously ill patients about discussing religious and spiritual beliefs with physicians.
Design: Three focus group discussions with patients who had experienced a recent life-threatening illness. Discussions were audiotaped, transcribed verbatim, and reviewed independently by two investigators to identify discrete comments for grouping into domains. A third investigator adjudicated differences in opinion. Comments were then independently reviewed for relevance and consistency by a health services researcher and a pastoral counselor.
Setting: Academic medical center.
Participants: Referred sample of 22 patients hospitalized with a recent life-threatening illness.
Measurements and main results: Almost all of the 562 comments could be grouped into one of five broad domains: 1) religiosity/spirituality, 2) prayer, 3) patient-physician relationship, 4) religious/spiritual conversations, and 5) recommendations to physicians. God, prayer, and spiritual beliefs were often mentioned as sources of comfort, support, and healing. All participants stressed the importance of physician empathy. Willingness to participate in spiritual discussions with doctors was closely tied to the patient-physician relationship. Although divided on the proper context, patients agreed that physicians must have strong interpersonal skills for discussions to be fruitful. Physician-initiated conversation without a strong patient-physician relationship was viewed as inappropriate and as implying a poor prognosis.
Conclusion: Religion and spirituality are a source of comfort for many patients. Although not necessarily expecting physicians to discuss spirituality, patients want physicians to ask about coping and support mechanisms. This exploratory study suggests that if patients then disclose the importance of spiritual beliefs in their lives, they would like physicians to respect these values.