Religion Has No Place in the Physician-Patient Relationship

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Dr Poole

What is your own religious background and orientation?

I was brought up as an atheist and I remain an atheist to this day. My siblings and I were brought up to believe that the most important thing was to be upstanding, but that did not entail being religious or accepting that type of authority. Part of me does not like framing myself as an atheist, insofar as I do not want to be defined by what I do or don’t believe, but that is my perspective on religion.

On the other hand, I think that people’s religious beliefs are an integral part of who they are, so one could say that my lack of religious faith and attachment to rationality are an overriding principle that informs what I do, together with my feelings about social justice. You can’t completely eliminate that or deny it, based on the part of you that is a clinician. But what you can do is try to stop it from having an adverse effect on patients or treating them differently.

Given your orientation as an atheist, what is your approach to the religious beliefs of your patients?

I believe that people of whatever religious/spiritual orientation should be respectful and tolerant of each other, but tolerance involves recognizing that, as a physician, your beliefs and belief systems have impact in complex ways, especially when you’re in a position of power, as physicians are with their patients. I also think that, while the person’s religious beliefs and observances must be respected and acknowledged, there is no role that religion should play in the physician-patient relationship.

What do you think of shared prayer?

I am opposed to it. I am here as a physician.  There are several reasons for this. One is that I am neither trained, nor do I feel it’s my role, to engage with a patient’s religious life. Obviously, as a psychiatrist, I may explore aspects of patients’ religious activity with them, but that is different from joining with them in those activities.

Shared prayer can also open up a discussion with the patient about what the physician’s religious beliefs are. Sometimes patients ask me about my religious beliefs or social or political perspectives. There is a school of thought in British medicine, especially British psychiatry that says if patients ask you about your personal beliefs you should always decline to answer and explore instead why the question is important to them. Although I agree that such an exploration is appropriate, declining to give a straight answer is discourteous. Additionally, some patients might want to be treated only by a person of their faith. Where I practice, there is a large Roman Catholic population and many feel unable to open up to a psychiatrist who is not Roman Catholic. But even if you are of the same faith community as the patient, this doesn’t mean that you feel the same way about issues of doctrine or other approaches to religion. 

This article originally appeared on MPR