Faculty Spotlight: Farr Curlin, MD

CurlinWelcome to the Division’s first Faculty Spotlight. In this recurring feature, we’ll talk to different faculty members about their backgrounds, interests, and work within the Division. This time we’ll talk to Dr. Farr Curlin, who works both as a palliative care clinician and as a Professor of Medical Humanities within the Trent Center for Bioethics, Humanities and History of Medicine.

You’re a man of many hats: a professor of medical humanities, a palliative care physician, and a medical ethicist, among others. What does a typical day for you look like?

It varies by the day. Some days I work full time as a palliative medicine physician, seeing patients in Duke’s inpatient hospice. In recent months, a typical day for me begins with writing up empirical research that I’ve done with colleagues.

On most days I also meet with one or more physicians in training, from premed students to post-doctoral fellows, who are interested in the intersection of medicine and religion. For example, tomorrow I’ll convene a conference in which a clinical fellow will present his research describing what chaplains do in the ICU.

Finally, I also work with colleagues in the Divinity School to develop the Initiative on Theology, Medicine and Culture. This initiative invites health care practitioners, ministers, and lay people to reimagine and reengage contemporary practices of health care in light of Christian tradition and the practices of Christian communities.

You’ve made religion and medicine a major part of your life. How did you get involved with these areas?

I got started in 2001, when I began a postdoctoral fellowship in health service research. I was interested in what led some Christian physicians to practice medicine among the underserved, whereas the great majority of Christians do not. Although that was my initial question, I ended up doing the first comprehensive study of the religious characteristics of US physicians.

Much of your research has focused on how physician’s religious beliefs affect their practices. What have you found in this research?

We found that physicians’ religious characteristics are by far the strongest predictors of physicians’ opinions and practices related morally controversial interventions in contemporary medicine—including an array of interventions in sexual and reproductive health care as well as care of patients at the end of life. In fact, religious characteristics seem to have more influence than all of the other physician characteristics researchers typically measure, combined.

Religious characteristics also appear to have more effects on other aspects of a physician’s practice. When it comes to patients facing common mental health issues such as substance abuse, depression, anxiety, or medically unexplained symptoms, for example, physicians who are more religious are significantly more likely to recommend that patients turn to religious resources, and they are somewhat less likely to refer such patients to a psychiatrist.

When did you join the Division of General Internal Medicine? What have been your impressions of the Division so far?

I joined both the Division and the Divinity School in January. I am still just getting to know our Division more broadly, as the Section of General Internal Medicine is the size of many departments of medicine at other institutions. I have really enjoyed working with my palliative medicine colleagues, and I look forward to collaborating with other Gen Med colleagues in the coming months and years.