When Hasan Siddiqi saw a patient wearing a head scarf, the fourth year medical student at University of Michigan—Ann Arbor wished her "Assalamu alaikum." After returning the Arabic greeting, the patient—who, it turned out, attended the same mosque as Siddiqi—asked him about everything from the availability of halal food at the hospital to the proper times and direction to pray.
"That put her more at ease that there was someone at least familiar in this very strange environment," says Siddiqi, a former president of Michigan's Muslim Medical Students' Association. "There was something extra that I had to offer, because I understood some of the rituals and the religious context."
Doctors need to be cautious about bringing up religion in a hospital room, just as one does at the dinner table, Siddiqi says. But, he adds, connecting with patients on a variety of levels—including faith—can help physicians see their patients as people rather than as algorithms and can better appreciate the larger context of their ailments.
Connecting with patients on a faith level is something that researchers at the Pritzker School of Medicine at University of Chicago have also found to be important, though often ignored. "We can talk to people about their sexual practices, but not about their own spirituality," Daniel Sulmasy, co-director of Chicago's Program on Medicine and Religion, recently told The Chicago Tribune. "In prehistoric times, the role of the healer and the priest were one and the same. We don't want to go back to that. But we've encountered a situation in that they are so radically separated that physicians think religion has no role."
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In what it refers to as its roadmap for hospitals, the Joint Commission, a nonprofit organization that accredits more than 19,000 healthcare organizations in the United States, addresses religion in several of its standards, or requirements for hospitals. Hospitals, when possible, should accommodate patients' religious preferences and right to religious services, and doctors should gather information about patients' religious beliefs during patient assessments, according to the roadmap.
But not everyone thinks religion belongs in conversations between doctors and patients. The Central London Humanist Group, for example, is advertising a talk titled "Cutting Religion Out of Medicine" that will be delivered by physician Antony Lempert, who states in his Twitter profile that he is "trying to keep patients safe from unwelcome religious attacks." The talk will "raise awareness of just how deep and harmful the tentacles of religious interference spread within our healthcare system," according to the group's website.
But those who say religion ought to be a part of doctors' interactions with patients say there's not enough faith in medicine. If he were to give medical schools a grade for the degree to which they cultivate aspiring physicians' communications skills around faith, Faheem Younus says he would give them a 3 out of 10. "I see a lot of room for improvement," says Younus, a clinical associate professor at the School of Medicine at University of Maryland.
The University of Chicago professors' research is just the latest to emphasize the importance of religion in medicine, but studies of this sort come out every four or five years, says Younus, a practicing Muslim and chief of infectious diseases at Upper Chesapeake Medical Center in Bel Air, Md. The studies tend to be supportive of, rather than cautious about, the role of religion in medicine, he says.
Younus waits for telltale signs—such as a cross or a rabbi at the patient's bedside—before discussing religion, and when he does talk about faith, he says he speaks generally and focuses on common ground rather than specific Islamic doctrines. "I'm talking of faith, but I'm religion neutral," he says.
Hospitals are also places where patients are vulnerable, so it's inappropriate to missionize to them, Younus says. When one patient asked him for Islamic literature, he politely declined. "Once you're well, we will get together," he told the patient.
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When he talks to Jewish patients, Zachary Epstein-Peterson, a student at the Medical School at Harvard University, anticipates discussing the Jewish tradition of viewing the "silver lining" in suffering.
"I think it would be difficult to talk about, certainly, because nobody wants to say to their patient, 'Boy, you're dying of cancer, but on the bright side, you can have a spiritual transformation.' But if the opportunity presented itself, [I would] say, 'I know this is very difficult for you. Perhaps your faith can offer some sort of guidance,'" says Epstein-Peterson, a former member of the board of the Maimonides Society, a Jewish medical student group at Harvard.
Epstein-Peterson and Siddiqi, the Michigan student, say their groups often draw participation from students of other faiths. Both also encourage students to attend events sponsored by other faith groups to better prepare themselves to interact with their patients.
"In general, students are aware of the faith organizations here," Epstein-Peterson says. "I'm not sure if they know the specifics of what [the groups] do. They might think we have prayer meetings."
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