Program studies role of religion in practicing medicine

Is a doctor's spirituality an obstacle or a benefit in the clinic? Does religious affiliation affect medical decision making? Can a spiritual calling protect doctors against career burnout?

With a $2.5 million grant from the John Templeton Foundation, the University of Chicago School of Medicine has launched a new program to help faculty scholars study these questions and more about the role of spirituality in medical practice and education.

"We want to look at the spirituality of being a practitioner, rather than focusing completely on the spirituality of being a patient," said Daniel Sulmasy, MD, PhD, Kilbride-Clinton Professor of Medicine and Ethics in the Department of Medicine and Divinity School and co-director of the Program on Medicine and Religion. "This new program will jump-start scholarship and teaching at the intersection of medicine and religion."

The Faculty Scholars program, which started last month, will train junior faculty to conduct further research on how a physician's personal beliefs inform his or her professional life.

The program will enroll four faculty scholars each year for a two-year program of learning and research on the role religion plays in a physician's practice. Participants will examine how Christianity, Judaism, Islam, and other spiritual traditions influence physicians' beliefs, decisions, and satisfaction with their profession.

"We hope this is a first step in a growing series of projects to train people who will shape the way religion is dealt with in medical education, and the profession more broadly, in the future," said Farr Curlin, MD, associate professor of medicine and co-director of the Program on Medicine and Religion.

According to a survey of 2000 U.S. physicians conducted by Curlin and colleagues, nine out of 10 clinicians claim a religious affiliation. More than half of responding physicians also agreed with the statement, "My religious beliefs influence my practice of medicine." Subsequent studies discovered relationships between physicians' religious affiliations and their attitudes on controversial clinical issues such as end-of-life care, abortion, and birth control.

"The big issue is whether a physician's religion should be seen as a threat to their medical practice or a resource," Curlin said. "Often religion is construed as a set of personal beliefs and ideas that threaten to prejudice a physician's practices or responses to patients, and interferes with physicians' professional obligations."

"In contrast, we want to ask how medicine can be construed as a spiritual vocation, as work that has sacred meaning," Curlin continued. "To think of medicine that way is to look for how physicians might practice medicine in ways that are congruent with, and animated by, their spiritual beliefs and practices."

The spiritual dimensions of medicine may be a useful antidote against the rising tide of dissatisfaction among physicians with their work. According to a May 2011 editorial in Journal of the American Medical Association,1 30 to 40% of U.S. physicians experience "burnout" from work-related stress — a phenomenon that could hurt patient care and drive physicians away from medical careers.

"There's a sense of alienation from the practice of medicine itself," Sulmasy said. "When it becomes seen as purely technology, as merely something that is done to persons, as objects, that winds up also in a sense making the clinician into an object. We can have spectacular, 21st century technologically advanced medicine and treat people as whole persons at the same time, but we need to move the balance back to where we're doing both and not just one."

One place where spirituality and religion could be integrated into clinical practice is at the medical school level. Following the model of the MacLean Center for Clinical Medical Ethics (where the Program on Medicine and Religion is based), the Faculty Scholars program hopes to inspire participant faculty to create curricula in religion and medicine at their home institutions.

"We are modeling this on other successful programs that have really been able to effect a change in the culture of medicine and build capacity in other fields," Sulmasy said. "In the great tradition of the University of Chicago teaching the teachers, we're trying to do the same thing here."

The first class of Faculty Scholars, announced March 1, will include John J. Hardt of Loyola University, Abraham Nussbaum of the University of Colorado, Aasim Padela of the University of Chicago School of Medicine, and Michael Balboni of the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute/Harvard University. The program will begin with a spring retreat in May 2012.

"We seek to help develop a field that really doesn't exist right now, which is the field of medicine and religion," Curlin said. "It's part of an overall hope that we can, through this work and future projects, contribute to a spiritual renewal within the practice of medicine," Curlin said.


  1. Dyrbye LN, Shanafelt TD. Physician Burnout. JAMA. 2011;305:2009-2010.


  • Physicians' observations and interpretations of the influence of religion and spirituality on health —