Terminally ill cancer patients who relied heavily on religion to help them cope were more likely to want and receive aggressive medical intervention to prolong life in their final days, according to a recent study.
This intervention often results in a lower quality of life and a more painful death than end-of-life care focused on relieving of suffering, and also entails higher costs, the study said.
However, the researchers found that doctors tend to comply with religious patient's wishes for more aggressive end-of-life care.
Those who found comfort in their faith were about three times more likely to be placed on a ventilator or receive intensive life-prolonging care in the final week of life than those who did not rely as heavily on religion to cope with their impending death.
The strong link between faith and aggressive intervention remained even when researchers controlled for unrealistically optimistic expectations, other coping styles, and demographic differences.
"Religious copers may choose aggressive therapies because they believe that God could use the therapy to provide divine healing, or they hope for a miraculous cure while intensive medical care prolongs life," wrote lead author Andrea Phelps of the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute.
"Because aggressive end-of-life cancer care has been associated with poor quality of death and caregiver bereavement adjustment, intensive end-of-life care might represent a negative outcome for religious copers."
The study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association examined 345 terminally ill patients at seven cancer centers across the United States.
Participants were interviewed about how they were coping with their illness, their use of advance care planning and their preferences regarding end-of-life treatment.
The researchers then tracked their treatment and interviewed their primary caregiver within two to three weeks after the patient died.
They found that 79 percent of patients said religion helps them cope "to a moderate extent" or more, while 32 percent said religion "is the most important thing that keeps you going."
Previous studies have found that the religious have a stronger preference for aggressive end-of-life care and that the vast majority of terminally ill patients rely upon religion or spirituality to help them cope.
This is the first study to examine the relationship between religiosity and the actual care received in the final days.