Medicine and religion have been closely intertwined since the beginning of recorded history, with treatments offered by healers within the framework of their spiritual tradition.
Although this remains true in some cultures, Western medicine has moved away from this model. Doctors tend to the body and clergy to the spirit. Doctors prescribe pills and perform procedures, while chaplains offer prayers and perform rituals.
But can these roles really be so neatly packaged?
No, according to a growing number of physicians and ethicists,1-4 who suggest that religion and prayer do not necessarily fall outside the bailiwick of modern-day Western medicine—or at least that the issue is complex and nuanced.
To shed light on some of the complexities in the potential role of physicians in the religious lives of patients, MPR interviewed two physicians with expertise in the interface of religion and medicine.
Benjamin Frush MD, a resident in internal medicine-pediatrics at Vanderbilt University Medical Center in Nashville, Tennessee, argues in favor of a role that physicians can play in integrating religion into their clinical practice.
Rob Poole MB, FRCPsych, Professor of Social Psychiatry, Bangor University, Wales, contends that physicians should never incorporate a religious element into clinical practice.
Religion Plays an Important Role in the Physician-Patient Relationship
What is your own religious background and orientation?
I am a Christian and my faith as a Christian is central to who I am and integral to my role as a physician. When I started medical school, it informed how I entered practice. Between my third and fourth year of medical school, I was a fellow at the Theology, Medicine, and Culture fellowship at Duke Divinity School, receiving my Masters in Christian Studies, and thought deeply about the intersection of faith, philosophy and medicine and how they transform and inform my interactions with patients and coworkers.
Given your Christian orientation, what is your approach to patients with either no religious beliefs or beliefs that differ from yours?
My orientation toward patients who hold religious, social, or moral beliefs with which I would disagree as a Christian is no different from my orientation toward patients of similar beliefs to my own. This comes not only from my medical ethic but also because the Gospel tells me to love and attend to that patient, particularly in his or her moment of sickness and vulnerability. My role as a clinician interfacing with someone vulnerable is to provide care and compassion, independent of what they believe. That is actually how Jesus Christ lived.
How would you react if a patient asked you to do something that directly contradicts your own religious beliefs?
I think that there are no absolutes in these types of situations and that they must be decided on a case-by-case basis. But the overriding principle is the health of the patient and respect for who the patient is. It is not my role to pass judgment on the patient’s requests and my spiritual/religious reasoning is inextricably bound up in my clinical reasoning.