Doctors discussing religion and spirituality: A systematic literature review

Palliat Med. 2016 Apr;30(4):327-37. doi: 10.1177/0269216315600912. Epub 2015 Aug 12.


Background: Discussion of religion and/or spirituality in the medical consultation is desired by patients and known to be beneficial. However, it is infrequent. We aimed to identify why this is so.

Aim: We set out to answer the following research questions: Do doctors report that they ask their patients about religion and/or spirituality and how do they do it? According to doctors, how often do patients raise the issue of religion and/or spirituality in consultation and how do doctors respond when they do? What are the known facilitators and barriers to doctors asking their patients about religion and/or spirituality?

Design: A mixed qualitative/quantitative review was conducted to identify studies exploring the physician's perspective on discussion of religion and/or spirituality in the medical consultation.

Data sources: We searched nine databases from inception to January 2015 for original research papers reporting doctors' views on discussion of religion and/or spirituality in medical consultations. Papers were assessed for quality using QualSyst and results were reported using a measurement tool to assess systematic review guidelines.

Results: Overall, 61 eligible papers were identified, comprising over 20,044 physician reports. Religion and spirituality are discussed infrequently by physicians although frequency increases with terminal illness. Many physicians prefer chaplain referral to discussing religion and/or spirituality with patients themselves. Such discussions are facilitated by prior training and increased physician religiosity and spirituality. Insufficient time and training were the most frequently reported barriers.

Conclusion: This review found that physician enquiry into the religion and/or spirituality of patients is inconsistent in frequency and nature and that in order to meet patient needs, barriers to discussion need to be overcome.

Keywords: Neoplasms; physician–patient relations; religion; review; spiritual care; spirituality.

Publication types

  • Review
  • Systematic Review

MeSH terms

  • Attitude of Health Personnel*
  • Chaplaincy Service, Hospital / trends
  • Communication
  • Communication Barriers
  • Databases, Bibliographic
  • Humans
  • Physician-Patient Relations
  • Physicians / psychology*
  • Practice Patterns, Physicians' / trends
  • Referral and Consultation / trends
  • Religion and Medicine*
  • Spirituality*
  • Terminally Ill / psychology*