Public Release: 

Gender plays role in religious sensitivity for medical students

Indiana University

Can sensitivity to the role religion plays in a patient's life positively affect physician bedside manner and care of the patient? Yes, for female physicians in training; no, for male physicians in training, according to a research letter published in the December issue of the Southern Medical Journal.

"Research has shown that patients want their physicians to be aware of their religious beliefs, values, and needs and to discuss religious issues with them, especially if they are preparing for death. At the same time, studies have documented physician avoidance of religious discussions due to discomfort and lack of training," said senior author Douglas Miller, M.D., professor of medicine at the Indiana University School of Medicine. "Other research suggests that medical students exposed to religion during medical training display more empathy and positive attitudes toward religion in the clinic.

"Our study found that religious awareness training improves medical student interpersonal behavior, but the effect is moderated by gender," said Dr. Miller, who also is a research scientist at the Regenstrief Institute, Inc. and the Indiana University Center for Aging Research.

Dr. Miller and co-authors John T. Chibnall, Ph.D., and Mary Ann Cook, Ph.D., report that female medical students who received religious awareness training in addition to communications training demonstrated superior interpersonal skills relative to those who received communications training only. No similar effect was found in male medical students.

The findings were published in a research letter rather than as a research study due to the preliminary nature of the data and the small sample size.

Twelve medical students received patient supportiveness training and 15 medical students received supportiveness training plus religious awareness training. The study hypotheses and difference in training were not explained to the students, and they were unaware that the subsequent simulated patient interaction was related at all to religious awareness training.

HOPE, a teaching methodology that integrates spiritual assessment into patient interviews, was used to train the future physicians in spiritual and religious sensitivity. HOPE training is designed to assist physicians in comprehending the effects of a patient's spiritual and religious beliefs on medical care and end-of-life issues (hope, organized religion, personal spirituality, and effects on medical care).

The researchers want to expand the research to determine why the impact of training designed to the support patients' spiritual and religious needs differs in male and female medical students.

"Is this gender disparity related to cultural norms, the same norms that look down upon a male who cries in public? Or are women better communicators? Also, since both the communications trainer and the simulated patient were female, could the gender of these professionals have affected the outcome? We don't know the answers to these questions, but we want to find out," said Dr. Miller. "We are trying to train students to be nonjudgmental and supportive physicians. Increased spiritual and religious sensitivity may enable them to better understand and thus better care for their patients throughout their lives, especially when facing end-of-life decisions."

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Dr. Chibnall is from the Department of Psychiatry at Saint Louis University School of Medicine; Dr. Cook is from JVC Radiology and Medical Analysis LLC, both of St. Louis, Mo. This study was supported by the Lutheran Foundation, and the Marchetti Jesuit Endowment at Saint Louis University.

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