Balancing act: practicing religious tolerance for better medical practice
Published: Wednesday, November 10, 2010
Updated: Thursday, November 11, 2010 15:11
"I will remember that there is art to medicine as well as science, and that warmth, sympathy, and understanding may outweigh the surgeon's knife or the chemist's drug." This is an excerpt from the Hippocratic Oath, the oath that all students of medicine must take on the day they officially become doctors and begin to practice medicine. Yet too often this section of the oath is overlooked by doctors who believe that their one and only job is to cure medical ailments and to do so while completely disregarding human emotion.
In the U.S. health care system, there are little or no predetermined distinct considerations for patients of non-Western faiths. According to some of these traditions, one might, for example, not be able to be treated by a doctor of a different sex, or perhaps not be able to receive a blood infusion. The examples vary among diverse cultural beliefs but they have one thing in common—they are not taken into account by the standard health care system. Requests for preferential treatment may seem over-the-top without information about religious beliefs, but a minimal effort to contextualize such needs could help non-traditional patients enormously. Sadly, hospitals are not accustomed to dealing with differences, so many of these patients do not receive the kind of care they need.
Obviously, it would be impossible to set up a perfect health care system that takes into consideration the particular needs of every single culture and religion in the United States. But this only makes it more imperative that they take on the task of providing adjustments for patients with different needs on a case by case basis. By taking their oaths, doctors are promising to consider the person behind the illness, pledging to "remember that I do not treat a fever chart, a cancerous growth, but a sick human being."
Nevertheless, sometimes arrogance and stubbornness get in the way of doctors keeping this foundational moral promise. Some doctors may claim that they do not have enough time to deal with each individual patient's particular requests; others claim that scientific knowledge is superior to faith. Either way, they are ignoring a very important part of a patient's well-being—their emotional tranquility, which can be closely tied to adherence to their faith.
Science is a belief system in its own way and, understandably, some doctors are reluctant to abandon it. However, their job description includes showing empathy for the people they treat—in every way. Doctors must make a singular effort to put aside their own scientific principles and recognize that a patient has a right to disregard those principles in the face of their own beliefs. Tolerance is not an abstract concept; acceptance is not theoretical. Rather, these values must be achieved through quantifiable efforts to keep an open mind, to remain understanding and willing to listen.
Disrespect towards a patient's beliefs will, without a doubt, become an enormous obstacle to his or her successful treatment. Not only will patients cease to cooperate with their doctors, they will also have a negative mindset that will simply not be conducive to their healing. Even more dangerous than stubbornness is the possibility that they will completely refuse further medical treatment because of fear or discomfort. If this were to occur, a doctor would not only have been unhelpful but actually harmed a human being who depended on them for their wellbeing. Again, this would fly in the face of the Hippocratic Oath.
It is imperative that doctors achieve a balance between using their knowledge and respecting religious beliefs, as both are essential in making sure that their patient is receiving the best possible health care. In this time and era, a return to the moral clauses of the Hippocratic Oath is in order, especially in a country with as much increasing racial and cultural diversity as the United States.