They discovered that physicians tend to view religion and spirituality pragmatically, considering them resources in family decision-making and in end of life situations, and barriers when they conflict with medical decisions, said lead author Wendy Cadge.
Paediatricians, more than paediatric oncologists, say that religion is outside the purview, or boundary, of their profession, most likely because they deal primarily with healthy children.
On the other hand paediatric oncologists say that religion can help families cope with a dying child or an unfavorable medical outcome, said Cadge.
"Physicians view religion and spirituality as a barrier when it impedes medical recommendations and as a bridge when it helps families answer questions medicine inherently cannot," wrote the authors.
Only one physician in the study directly asked patients and their families about religion and spirituality regularly.
The other paediatricians said that direct conversations about religion were either not relevant or too personal, drawing a clear boundary between public and private that puts religion on the private side of the line.
Still, religion and spirituality almost always come up when medical treatment fails to cure the patient.
One physician explained, "The old adage that there are very few nonbelievers in fox holes applies in this setting also."
The study found that many of the physicians believe religious and spiritual beliefs help patients and their families shift from curative to palliative care.
"The study shows that physicians do not want religious beliefs to trump medical care or expertise, and they get frustrated when such beliefs interfere with medical decisions. But at the end of the day, when a loved one is dying or all medical options are exhausted, physicians often welcome a family's religious beliefs because they help a family answer the "why us" questions that medicine cannot," said Cadge.
The study has been published in the current issue of Social Problems.