Religious U.S. doctors are no more likely to care for underserved patients than their secular counterparts, a new study found.
The University of Chicago study revealed that 31 percent of American doctors who described themselves as religious reported serving primarily poor or uninsured communities. The statistic is slightly less than the 35 percent doctors who had no religious affiliation.
"Religious physicians are not disproportionately caring for the underserved," Dr. Farr Curlin of the University of Chicago and lead author of the study, told Reuters.
Curlin, who says he is religious, said he was curious to find out whether doctors who are more religious are more likely to take care of patients who are poor because many religions include a call to serve the poor.
Doctors who considered themselves as "highly spiritual," but not necessarily affiliated with a religion, were about twice as likely to care for underserved patients (uninsured, receiving Medicaid, or attending a so-called "safety-net setting") than those not so spiritual.
Also, doctors who said they had no religious affiliation, those who said they were raised in a family that encouraged service to the poor, and those who felt that their religious beliefs influenced their medical practice were most likely to care for the underserved.
"Everybody knows caring for the poor is a good thing," noted Curlin, according to The Washington Post. "Yet there are a lot of reasons to not care for the poor. A lot of selfish reasons. Because it's hard and it costs you.
"But what religious communities do with respect to those behaviors that are good, but are costly, is give people support and exhortation to live up to that calling, even though it's hard."
But researchers noted a disconnect among those who said they regularly attend religious services or consider religion a driving force in their life.
"I think it challenges the religious communities to think about whether they're helping physicians make the connection between what religion teaches and how they practice medicine," said Curlin, according to The Chicago Tribune.
Women were more likely to treat underserved patients than men. Psychiatrists and pediatricians also showed the highest rate of taking care of poor patients while neurologists ranked the lowest.
The survey was completed by 1,144 physicians from across the United States. Results are featured in the Annals of Family Medicine, a peer-reviewed research journal