When Stephanie Johnson, 34, a homemaker in Brooklyn, N.Y., thought she was expecting, she browsed the list of doctors on her insurance company’s web site and chose an ob-gyn near her home.
But the convenient location could not excuse her new doctor’s poor bedside manner. When Stephanie and her husband, Allen, both Jehovah’s Witnesses, explained they don’t believe in blood transfusions, should the need for one arise during pregnancy, “our doctor literally scoffed at us,” Allen says. “We take the Bible quite literally, and in the book of Acts, it says to abstain from blood. Our doctor was not keen on that idea.”
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Like many other patients, the Johnsons were seeking both medical and spiritual services from their doctors, or at least respect for their religious wishes. Indeed, the University of Chicago’s Farr A. Curlin, MD, an expert on religion and health care, sees a gap between patients’ spiritual concerns related to illness and doctors’ comfort level in addressing those concerns.
In a 2005 national survey, Religious Characteristics of U.S. Physicians, Curlin and his team found that doctors seldom broach the topic of spirituality with their patients, nor do they typically engage in discussions when patients try to initiate a conversation.
More Doctors Interested in Faith
Yet Curlin believes the gap between doctor and patient is slowly closing. “There is increasingly more training in medical school regarding how to ask patients about their spiritual concerns, where previously there was none,” Curlin says.
Religion is relegated to the backburner, Curlin suggests, because doctors see themselves as medical scientists rather than healers. “The very word healer evokes a spiritual dimension,” Curlin says. “We went away from that with the dawn of modern medicine, but currently there are movements trying to push medicine back toward being a rich, spiritual practice.”
Curlin cites a renewed interest in narrative medicine, where doctors listen to the human side of patients’ health stories, and in venues such as Schwartz Center Rounds, a national forum where clinicians gather to talk about the emotional aspects of medicine.
If you have strong religious beliefs that might affect your health care decisions, find a doctor who will listen to your thoughts and engage in a discussion about your faith. Bring a document clearly stating any faith-based wishes, so that in case of emergency, the doctor has it on file. Ask your health care professional to connect you with spiritual resources if he or she is unable to provide them for you. And remember, you can switch doctors.