Are Religion and Medicine Compatible?
Written by Bells
Religion and medicine can seem worlds apart, but as a junior doctor finds out, in practice there is a different story to tell.
Throughout the entirety of medical school, not once have I seen religion viewed positively.
A patient’s religious preferences and the practices involved, in my experience, are most often viewed by others as a burden, an additional barrier to work around.
And when it comes to the practitioner’s religious beliefs…well that’s almost a taboo, nearly completely unheard of. I imagine the reason why that must be is that some things are best left private, like one’s wage or political views.
The entire matter isn’t helped by the fact that ethics classes are full of clinical scenarios wherein religion impedes on best practice. There are the hallmark Jehovah’s Witness cases requiring blood transfusions, the classic anti-abortion and anti-contraception cases from religious individuals, typically of the Christian variety, and even the case of a Jewish or Muslim person requiring a porcine prosthetic valve.
The seemingly progressive views of medical schools can villainise religious beliefs with these ethical scenarios presented as barriers that we must overcome as medical practitioners. To my eyes, it therefore seems a stigma surrounds being both religious and a healthcare practitioner.
But two things happened recently which have got me thinking.
The first was when I published my article titled “Prophylaxis for Burnout: The Sabbath - Can Med Students Take a Day Off?” I received some praise from religious colleagues across different faiths who were enthusiastic to read about religious practices viewed positively in a modernised non-stop setting.
The second was after reading“The Hospital by the River” by Dr. Catherine Hamlin and John Little. I found it fascinating to read how the Hamlins’ faith inspired them to help people in need, providing much needed medical and surgical treatment and targeting social factors to improve health outcomes.
These two things made me think: How does religion inspire young doctors today? And, are religion and medicine even compatible?
In answering this question, I interviewed a Christian, a Jew, and a Muslim. Aside from being the start of a bad joke a Rabbi would make in their sermon, the conversations provided many insights into people today who incorporate their faith (or not) into their practice.
Please note, the following views and opinions belong to the individuals expressing them and are not intended to represent whole communities or religions.
Dr. Rami Dawood
Rami Dawood is an intern at the Alfred who was brought up with two faiths; his mother’s family is Catholic, and his father’s is Muslim. Rami says he wasn’t particularly religious growing up. His family would celebrate Christmas and attend Friday night prayers, but it wouldn’t go much farther than that.
Before pursuing medicine, Rami was interested in a career in the performing arts. This changed during Rami’s teens when he started experiencing supraventricular tachycardias (a certain type of tachycardia or rapid heartbeat, not uncommon in young people, which can result in palpitations, anxiety, sweating, and what Rami describes as an overall extremely frightening experience.)
“I would honestly think I was going to die. There were a couple of moments in my life where I was rushed to the hospital because my heart rate was so high…It’s not fatal, but it really forced me to think about my mortality.”
For Rami, these moments, in which his heartbeat was racing and he was shuttled to the emergency room lead him to question the existence of the afterlife. During his senior year of high school, Rami immersed himself in a library of new age philosophy. Discovering Eckhart Tolle, Deepak Chopra and delving into Buddhism, Taoism, and Hinduism, Rami was passionate about finding the truth of all things.
“One thing I did pick up from Deepak Chopra in his book The Path To Love, was a poet named Rumi. Rumi is a Sufi mystic from the 12th century from the Islamic tradition who writes really powerful poetry about intimacy with the divine.”
Rami’s discovery of Rumi brought to light a dimension of Islam that he never knew existed, something spiritual, purifying, and beautifully intimate.
In his freshman year of arts entertainment in Chicago, Illinois, Rami tried to be a better and more faithful Muslim. It was during this time that he felt a void within his studies. He felt like he had to do more.
“I do love the arts. I do love performing, but I just felt this need to help others.”
“I was really inspired and influenced by my own parents... I’ve seen them treat patients and save lives growing up. And I felt like that was missing in my life. And because I was understanding religion at a deeper level, and understanding my purpose, or what my purpose in life should be, I began to recognise that need in myself.”
Rami delved even further into philosophy and the holistic needs of a healing body. Rami described to me in detail the three dimensions of Islam, which I will summarise here as Islam (the body), Iman (the mind), and Ihsan (the spirit).
The practicing of Islam, Iman, and Ihsan allowed Rami to better appreciate the idea of holistic medicine, both for healing himself, and then for healing others.
I asked Rami how these pillars of Islam inspire his day-to-day practice of medicine.
“I was on a palliative care rotation, and I realised that there was something very different to how pall-care physicians take their time with patients compared to other specialities – where you come in and do your diagnostics and then just leave.”
Rami describes how he was impacted by this one palliative care specialist he was paired with; their presence, humility, and connection with the patient was truly humbling to him, and a sign of Ihsan.
Rami later went on to say that that’s what inspired his interest in palliative care medicine. He told me that when it comes to end-of-life care, everyone starts to become a bit more spiritual, and as a pall-care physician, you have a very important role connecting to the patient and helping them on their last steps.
At least for Rami, it would seem as if Medicine and Religion can and do mix. He went on to say that, despite this, there was a mutual lack of understanding, and that the secular, scientifically-grounded approach has great difficulties meeting the spiritual, intangible, faith that surrounds a person’s religion.
Similarly, many physicians who aren’t from a religious background also aren’t necessarily able to relate to a person’s religious experience, especially during end-of-life care. Rami’s wife, Dr. Sarah Syed developed a brochure in collaboration with Palliative Care Victoria on end-of-life care for Muslim patients to improve their care and outcomes in the palliative care setting and beyond.
Dr. Naomi Cohen
Dr. Naomi Cohen is a hospital medical officer at Monash Health who identifies with the Jewish faith. Born in Hong Kong, Naomi moved to Australia at age six, and has attended Jewish day schools her entire life. After finishing Year 12, Naomi went on a gap year in Israel, and then volunteered for two years in the youth movement B’nei Akiva.
But Naomi describes her level of observance as fluctuating throughout her life. In adulthood, she has taken active steps to observe the Sabbath when she’s not working and to keep a kosher kitchen.
“I think [religion has] definitely shaped my values, particularly my focus on community. I think of Judaism as such a communal religion, and everything that you do is so focused on the people around you.”
Naomi goes on to describe how she has a strong connection with the community and the people who make it, which in turn is reinforced by the support that the community provides.
I asked Naomi whether she thinks medicine and religion are compatible.
“I think it’s very compatible,” Naomi begins. “You were talking before about the experiences that we had as medical students, times when religion is framed as unreasonable, obstructive, and very much not compatible with medicine. But I actually think it depends on the situation and your approach to both.
“For example, like the one you used of a Jehovah's Witness requiring a blood transfusion. It's a very typical example that's always brought up in ethics that’s actually a very niche situation that doesn't happen that often.”
“I think religion can be a really lovely support for patients. And particularly when they're going through such a difficult time, I think people turn to their spirituality. It can be really important for patients to tap into that if they do have that connection.”
And indeed, a systematic review published in the Journal of Palliative Medicine and other studies published in the Journal of Pain and Symptom Management, Psychosomatics, and the American Journal of Psychotherapy have found a positive association between spiritual wellbeing and an improved quality of life, including lower levels of depression, better quality of life near death, and protection against end-of-life despair in patients with cancer.
Naomi specifically mentions the Sabbath when talking about the balance religion provides for her in her life as a practitioner. The Sabbath is a day of rest, and that means, no work, no studying, no monetary transactions, no electricity, not even writing. It is a day to cede control. To surrender.
“[The Sabbath] means that I have that one day a week where I’m not studying. I’m not thinking about medicine, and am just entirely focused on my connection with my community and my friends. Having not only that actual support network that a community provides, but that extra depth and spiritual connection can really alleviate the burdens in a career that can be very emotionally demanding.”
At least for her, religion provides balance in what can be a physically and emotionally tumultuous lifestyle. However, that may not be the perception that most people have. I asked Naomi for her thoughts on the stigma of religion in Medicine.
“Everyone tries to be very professional or as empathetic as they can be. But, I think if you don't have that religious connection yourself, it can be very difficult to really understand where patients are coming from. I think a lot of the time if someone's spiritual life plays into these kinds of decisions, it can come across or be perceived as ‘unreasonable’.”
Dr. Sarah Woodford
Dr. Sarah Woodford is a hospital medical officer in the Hunter New England region of New South Wales, and is currently working in Newcastle. Sarah’s journey through Christianity has been in some respects typical, and, in others, unorthodox.
Sarah identifies as a Christian, meaning, in short, she believes “Jesus Christ, who is both the Son of God and a perfect and sinless man, died for my sins, so that I could be in a right relationship with God.”
Sarah was brought up in a nominally Catholic family, attending church on occasion.
“I was always curious about religion but didn’t really know what I was doing when it came to understanding church or sacraments or anything I felt like I had to do as a Catholic.”
“It was really only when I went to university that I started to really sift through what Catholics believed, how that differed from the Christian friends that I had made at university, and what the Bible said.”
And for Sarah, moving to university was quite an experience. Accepted into Medicine at the University of New South Wales, Sarah packed up her things and moved from her beloved country town to the big smoke and accidentally found herself living in a Christian college (which she now believes was God’s guiding hand, placing her where He needed her to be). During this time, after meeting her new Christian friends, she also started reading the Bible.
“By reading the Bible and investigating for myself, as well as consulting the wisdom of many others and praying to God for myself for the first time, I became a practicing Christian when I was about 20 years old.”
Sarah’s immersion in Medicine and Christianity, though the two were separate, was formative for her.
“It consistently amazes me that I don’t have to tell my kidneys to filter toxins from my blood, and I (for the most part) don’t have to consciously get my lungs to breathe, and I don’t have to take too much time to pull my hand away from a hot stove when I accidentally touch it.”
In secular society, if this set of interviews hasn’t yet made abundantly clear, there is often a push against the conservative orthodoxy in which religion finds its home. When I asked how her faith has influenced her practice of medicine, Sarah said, “My faith pervades every single aspect of my life, including my practice in medicine.
“I would love to think that my actions (in a flawed, imperfect-human-who-makes-mistakes kind of way) reflect my faith not only when I’m with patients but in every single aspect of my life - that I strive to be patient, loving, joyful, generous, kind, slow to judge, caring, humble, and so on - the way that God is with us, His sinful creation.”
I have found Sarah to be every one of these things. And are these not some of the exact qualities we look for in a good doctor (or healthcare worker)?
Finally, I asked her if she thinks there is a stigma around religion in the medical field.
“I find this a difficult question to answer… I’m lucky to be able to say that in my eight-ish months of being a doctor and in my five-ish years of being a Christian, I personally have not experienced any specific negative experiences related to my faith and my practice of medicine. But by and large the world is grounded in science and logic, and people don’t often think of religion as being in any way logical or scientific, so that can lead to conflict. And it can certainly be the case where doctors don’t understand a patient’s perspective because they aren’t able to associate with a patient’s beliefs.
“I think in general as doctors, we have to recognise the perceived power imbalance between patient and doctor and we need to have immense respect for any patient beliefs - religious or otherwise - which affect their decisions to seek/not seek particular kinds of healthcare, and not criticise or judge them for their decisions. And really, you don’t actually need religion to factor into this at all - this should just be standard, patient-centred medical care.”
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