Patients at times disagree with medical recommendations for religious reasons. Despite a lively debate about how physicians should respond to patients’ religious concerns, little is known about how physicians actually respond. We explored the ways in which physicians interpret and respond to conflict between medical recommendations and patients’ religious commitments.
One-to-one, in-depth, semistructured interviews with 21 physicians from a range of religious affiliations, specialties, and practice settings. Interviews were transcribed, coded, and analyzed for emergent themes through an iterative process of textual analysis informed by the principle of constant comparison.
Conflict introduced by religion is common and occurs in 3 types of settings: (1) those in which religious doctrines directly conflict with medical recommendations, (2) those that involve an area in which there is extensive controversy within the broader society, and (3) settings of relative medical uncertainty in which patients “choose faith over medicine.” In response to such conflict, physicians first seek to accommodate patients’ ideas by remaining open-minded and flexible in their approach. However, if they believe patients’ religiously informed decisions will cause them to suffer harm, physicians make efforts to persuade patients to follow medical recommendations.
When religiously related conflict arises, physicians appear to intuitively navigate a tension between respecting patients’ autonomy by remaining open-minded and flexible and seeking patients’ good by persuading them to follow medical recommendations. In such contexts, religion and medicine are intertwined, and moral counsel inheres in physicians’ medical recommendations.