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South Med J. 2003 May;96(5):452-7.

Absolute versus relative values: effects on family practitioners and psychiatrists.

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  • 1Psychology Department, James H. Quillen VA Medical Center/College of Medicine, Johnson City, TN, USA.



Research demonstrates that religious values clearly impact on the judgments made by physicians and their patients. One basic dichotomy--belief in ethical values that do not change (absolute values) versus belief in values that change depending on the situation (relative values)--has recently been experimentally associated with different ethical decision-making patterns.


An anonymous, randomized, national survey and 1-week response prompt with 1-month follow-up mailing as necessary were distributed to nationwide samples of board-certified American family practitioners and psychiatrists. Physicians answered descriptive questions and standardized personality assessments and responded to three vignettes describing ethically sensitive scenarios concerning birth control medication for sexually active single women, euthanasia, and abortion.


Response rates were 34% for psychiatrists and 38% for family practitioners. Family practitioners and absolutists were significantly more supportive of religious activities and had more religious parents than psychiatrists and relativists. Furthermore, family practitioners and absolutists were less approving of the vignettes than other groups.


Family practitioners were more supportive of religious activities than psychiatrists as reported in previous research. The absolute versus relative value dichotomy is a useful concept in examining physician attitudes as they affect health care and personal behavior. However, questions concerning place of worship attendance and giving in addition to specific religious value labels may be more efficient experimentally. Physicians should be aware of their own biases in discussions with patients, families, and other health care providers.

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