ANN ARBOR, Mich. — The latest data from the University of Michigan’s National Poll on Healthy Aging suggests the majority of older adults support separating church and state — when it comes to their hospital care. Most respondents told researchers they prefer to keep their health care and their spiritual or religious lives detached.
However, older adults do believe health care providers and doctors can “play a role” in helping them cope with illnesses and adverse health events by assisting in the search for meaning or hope.
More specifically, 84 percent of respondents between ages 50 and 80 hold religious and/or spiritual beliefs that are somewhat or very important to them. Among that group, 71 percent cited religious beliefs and 80 percent cited spiritual beliefs. Notably, 40 percent added that their spiritual beliefs have only grown more valuable to them as they’ve advanced in age.
3 in 4 want doctors to keep their personal beliefs private
Among those with self-described important religious or spiritual beliefs, 19 percent said their beliefs have in fact influenced their health care decisions in the past. Another 28 percent want health care providers to ask them about their beliefs.
Meanwhile, 77 percent of all surveyed older individuals, regardless of religious beliefs, said that doctors should keep their own personal beliefs separate from their day job.
This research was based at the U-M Institute for Healthcare Policy and Innovation and supported by AARP and Michigan Medicine, U-M’s academic medical center. The polling team collaborated with Adam Marks, M.D., M.P.H., a hospice and palliative care physician at Michigan Medicine, and L.J. Brazier, M.Div., a chaplain at Michigan Medicine’s Department of Spiritual Care.
“While 45% of older adults say their religious beliefs are very important to them, and 50% say that about their spiritual beliefs, even this group largely wants to keep this aspect of their lives separate from their health care,” says Marks, an associate professor of geriatric and palliative medicine, in a university release. “But a sizable majority of all older adults – whether or not they say belief is important to them – reported that they’d turn to health care workers to help them find deeper meaning in their illness, and 78% believe health care workers will help them find hope when they’re having a health-related challenge.”
Brazier adds that many modern health care systems offer ways to record patients’ religious beliefs and affiliations within electronic medical records. Also, medical students and others currently training to work in the health care profession are usually told to ask their patients about any beliefs that might affect future care.
Why is it important to know about a patient’s faith?
Access to religious information helps doctors ensure that patients with strongly held beliefs or specific religious affiliations receive everything they need, which could range from certain foods to a visit from chaplains of a specific faith tradition. On the other hand, it’s also helpful for doctors to know when a patient isn’t religious or spiritual.
“Being a religious or spiritual person, or not following a faith tradition or spiritual practices, is a highly personal matter,” says poll director Jeffrey Kullgren, M.D., M.P.H., M.S., an associate professor of internal medicine at Michigan Medicine and physician and researcher at the VA Ann Arbor Healthcare System. “So perhaps it’s not surprising that only about a quarter of all people in this age range say they’ve talked about their beliefs with a health care provider, though this rose to about one-third of those who say their religious or spiritual beliefs are very important to them.”
All in all, 70 percent of respondents who said their beliefs are somewhat or very important to them reported being comfortable with the notion of discussing their beliefs with their health care providers. Even if a patient doesn’t want to talk about religion during a typical appointment, it’s still important for doctors to be aware of their patients’ beliefs. In the event of a health emergency, crisis, or illness, faith communities can provide support.
Most surveyed older adults (65%) with strong religious or spiritual beliefs said they belong to a community of people who share those beliefs.
This poll is based on findings from a nationally representative survey conducted by NORC at the University of Chicago for IHPI, administered online and via the phone in July 2022 among 2,163 adults between the ages of 50 and 80. That sample was then weighted to reflect the U.S. population.