Deliberating religion in healthcare is often uncomfortable or even polarizing. Yet, it is a subject that needs discussing in the proper context to affect healthy outcomes for healthcare recipients, their families and yes, even health care providers.
A person’s religion, cultural background and beliefs has the potential to impact their interactions with the healthcare system at all levels. The most personal of all these is their interaction with a provider, such as a physician or a nurse and so on. Such interactions will happen when a person is at their most vulnerable such as when they have a baby, are ill, diagnosed with a terminal or debilitating condition, or getting ready to come to terms as they come face to face with end of life.
Does the religion of a patient make a difference on how a health care provider might best approach such times of elation or sensitivity? A potentially prickly topic for most people and even for providers, it is, however, certainly worth exploring.
This was the subject of discussion at the Texas Children’s Hospital in the Texas Medical Center in Houston recently. It was my distinct honor and privilege to be asked to participate as a panelist alongside chaplains and experts on an inter-faith panel representing the views of Christianity, Judaism, Islam, Hinduism and Buddhism. This was a forum where questions pertaining to specific cultural rituals, do’s or don’ts and other such meaningful and significant nuances relating to the oftentimes delicate interaction between health care providers and patients could be deliberated upon to better help care for and comfort patients in their time of need. Kudos to Texas Children’s Hospital’s Ethics Planning Committee for being proactive and sensitive to patients of differing religious backgrounds and their needs in their approach to enhancing patient care.
Discussing religion and healthcare doesn’t have to be contentious. To the contrary, it is quite productive in a proper contextual setting and results in a much greater level of comfort and joy for both providers and patients. The modern healthcare delivery system with its space-age technology and barrage of tests is often intimidating to patients. The human touch in this day and age is generally perceived as impersonal, distant, aloof and insensitive to personal and cultural needs. It is, therefore, indeed now more than ever that the practice of modern medicine needs an infusion of a healthy dose of spirituality and compassion.
It is also important to bear in mind that health care providers are very much human, with real human emotions and attachments. Looking upon patients in a detached way by a provider is not, and should not be, entirely possible. Humans are social by nature and bonds between providers and patients can form quickly and even unknowingly. Powerful emotions such as joy and grief are, by their very nature, quite contagious. It is during such emotionally turbulent times that welcome and genuine compassion often flows untethered.
In Hinduism, a matriarchally organized system, it is said that God works through many hands. The most divine of His hands are those of a mother, a father, a guru or teacher, and a physician or health care provider, in that order. A physician or other health care provider, therefore, is held in high esteem and hence commands a high level of trust and respect. However, the Hindu laws of Karma mandate an equally vaulted level of morality and ethics on the part of the physician.
It is gratifying to see how many more similarities there are than differences in the ways that patients and their families with different religious backgrounds need caring for. At the basis of it all is the fundamental human need for compassion in their hour of need, whether medical, ethical, social, cultural or spiritual, especially when the end time is near. Then is when faith in the divine needs to be the strongest for one is usually the weakest – the faith that “life” continues to live even as the body ceases to do so.
Pondering religion and spirituality in healthcare is a very healthy thing, literally and meaningfully. Taken to heart, positive outcomes result for both the provider and their patient in wonderful ways. Outcomes that heal in more ways than one. And no, there is absolutely no inclination to impose any personal beliefs upon anyone. There is, merely, the sincere desire for genuine love and untethered compassion in health care. Lots of it.