Is there a place for religion in the exam room?

As part of a family medicine rotation, we recently discussed the importance of bringing spirituality into the hospital. The conversation was led by Stanford Hospital’s chaplain, Dr. Bruce Feldstein, an ER doctor in a former life. We began with definitions of spirituality, discussed personal experiences surrounding a spiritual moment, and concluded with how to take a “spiritual history,” a series of questions that explore patients’ spiritual or religious beliefs.

We even got a practice script that we took turns reading aloud. It went something like, “We have been discussing your support systems. In the past, what sustains you in difficult times? … What are your sources of hope, strength, comfort and peace? … What is your faith and belief? … How would you like me as your doctor to address these issues with you?”

Saying the words aloud made me realize how uncomfortable I was broaching this topic with my patients. I had always thought, and I’m not sure why I had this notion, that doctors were not supposed to talk about religion with patients. Much like other polarizing topics such as politics, religion seemed to be a taboo topic that made interactions between doctors and patients more unprofessional.

It could either go really well and strengthen the doctor-patient bond, or it could go really badly and push the patient further away from his provider. I think of this from a patient’s perspective. Would I feel comfortable discussing my faith with my doctor of a different religion? I would fear that I may color the doctor’s opinion of me due to certain prejudices he may hold, which somehow could affect my medical care. I’ve also never seen a doctor discuss religion with a patient, so I would worry that the doctor would think I am wasting his time.

And what if my doctor were atheist? What would I say to him? How could he possibly understand how and why I am turning to my religion to sustain me through this hospital visit?

I think my takeaway from this class is that the decision to discuss religion depends on what cues I get from my patients. If my patient brings up religion in our discussions, seems comfortable mentioning spirituality with me, or seems to talk about faith and religion with his family when considering medical decisions, then yes, I may explore this topic (though to be honest, I’m not quite sure what it will add to discuss religious topics with me versus with a spiritual figure like a pastor or a chaplain). But if the patient requests it, I will engage. Personally, I still will not actively ask about religious preferences if the patient does not bring the issue up.

For now, religion will remain mostly off limits for me in the workplace.

Joyce Ho is a medical student who blogs at Tea with MD.  She can be reached on Twitter @TeawithMD.

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