Original Research

Journal of General Internal Medicine

, Volume 25, Issue 7, pp 725-730

First online:

Religious Hospitals and Primary Care Physicians: Conflicts over Policies for Patient Care

  • Debra B. StulbergAffiliated withDepartment of Family Medicine, The University of ChicagoSection of Family Planning, Department of Obstetrics & Gynecology, The University of ChicagoMacLean Center for Clinical Medical Ethics, The University of Chicago Email author 
  • , Ryan E. LawrenceAffiliated withPritzker School of Medicine, The University of Chicago
  • , Jason ShattuckAffiliated withInternal Medicine/Pediatrics, Wenatchee Valley Medical Center
  • , Farr A. CurlinAffiliated withMacLean Center for Clinical Medical Ethics, The University of ChicagoSection of General Internal Medicine, Department of Internal Medicine, The University of Chicago

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Religiously affiliated hospitals provide nearly 20% of US beds, and many prohibit certain end-of-life and reproductive health treatments. Little is known about physician experiences in religious institutions.


Assess primary care physicians’ experiences and beliefs regarding conflict with religious hospital policies for patient care.


Cross-sectional survey.


General internists, family physicians, and general practitioners from the AMA Masterfile.


In a questionnaire mailed in 2007, we asked physicians whether they had worked in a religiously affiliated hospital or practice, whether they had experienced conflict with the institution over religiously based patient care policies and how they believed physicians should respond to such conflicts. We used chi-square and multivariate logistic regression to examine associations between physicians’ demographic and religious characteristics and their responses.


Of 879 eligible physicians, 446 (51%) responded. In analyses adjusting for survey design, 43% had worked in a religiously affiliated institution. Among these, 19% had experienced conflict over religiously based policies. Most physicians (86%) believed when clinical judgment conflicts with religious hospital policy, physicians should refer patients to another institution. Compared with physicians ages 26–29 years, older physicians were less likely to have experienced conflict with religiously based policies [odds ratio (95% confidence interval) compared with 30–34 years: 0.02 (0.00–0.11); 35–46 years: 0.07 (0.01–0.72); 47–60 years: 0.02 (0.00–0.10)]. Compared with those who never attend religious services, those who do attend were less likely to have experienced conflict [attend once a month or less: odds ratio 0.06 (0.01–0.29); attend twice a month or more: 0.22 (0.05–0.98)]. Respondents with no religious affiliation were more likely than others to believe doctors should disregard religiously based policies that conflict with clinical judgment (13% vs. 3%; p = 0.005).


Hospitals and policy-makers may need to balance the competing claims of physician autonomy and religiously based institutional policies.


religion conscience primary care hospital policy health policy