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The Separation of Faith and Medicine

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Religion sometimes plays an important role in the treatment of a patient, even though as physicians, we might not want it to. I have often thought that to be neutral in my approach to a patient, I should keep the idea of religion, including my own, out of the encounter. My very spiritual Muslim parents have often suggested that I should pray for my patients, particularly the very ill. The idea never really sat right with me.

As a practicing Muslim myself, I have always felt the need to separate faith from my practice, with a focus on applying the scientific knowledge that I have worked hard to acquire and on increasing my medical experience for the best outcomes. In the last three years of training, however, I have experienced a few defining moments where I could not escape facing religion in the medical domain. These moments have led to great personal growth and have made me cognizant of the limitations associated with not thinking of religion as an important player in medical practice.

My earliest experience with religion occurred during my early days of intern year when I was assigned to care for an elderly Orthodox Jewish man. I was a physician who needed to treat him but I was also a woman. I understood that in his faith and culture, not unlike my own, there were limitations to interactions between the opposite sexes. I found myself tweaking my approach to my usual bedside manner to become more culturally sensitive, restricting touch to only necessary medical exams, and limiting or eliminating comforting measures including hand-holding or my usual tap on the shoulder. Since my regular repository of tools to help build the patient-physician relationship were on hold, it was important to incorporate other tools, such as clear communication, focused eye contact, and an emphasis on explanation and motivation. On my end, I had to learn to cultivate patience, as initially, I felt my patient may have been distant while we both learned how to work with and around each other. What I recognized later was what I had perceived as being “distant” initially was probably just him being hesitant to be put in an uncomfortable position. The patient-physician trust was slowly built over time and it was done so by modulating my usual bedside technique and being persistent in caring for the patient, which eventually helped him warm up to me.

A different patient encounter had me questioning my own beliefs on incorporating religion into patient care. I recall caring for a patient dying from an invasive cancer as part of the palliative team. My team was asked to be a part of a joint prayer led by my patient’s pastor. Though I am not Christian, I participated in that prayer with my head bent. I remember feeling uncomfortable as the pastor made zealous calls to Jesus to relieve my patient’s suffering. A part of this discomfort came from the fact that the prayers were being made to a godly figure that I personally did not believe in and second, from the fact that I had always separated prayer from patient care. I looked up to see all of my other team members with their eyes closed and heads bowed in prayer. I did not want to be the only person in the room not praying for my patient. In that moment, I started to feel that despite my own beliefs, I could pray for my patient’s well-being and that I did not have to attach this prayer to any religion or godly figure, even my own, if the thought of doing so was uncomfortable for me as a physician. This experience helped me see prayer in the medical realm as no more than a wish for the well-being for one's patient.

Since these encounters, I have come to learn that sometimes, recognizing a patient’s religion forces a physician to realize a reinforced humanity of the patient and of themselves. My most vivid experience of this was when I heard Quranic verses being played at the bedside of a patient while leading a code blue on her. As most in health care will recognize, the leader of a code blue does their job with due diligence, with one sole focus: to revive the patient. Leading a code is almost mechanical in nature. Normally, one does not stop to think what the patient’s background is unless it is pertinent to the medical history. One usually zones in on how good or bad the compressions are, when to give the next dose of epinephrine, when to shock the patient, and finally, when to call the code if spontaneous circulation is not achieved. The code leader (at least in my hospital) rarely ever has knowledge of the patient prior to the code, and usually meets them for the first time during it.

While I was leading this code blue, I recognized the faint hum of Arabic verses in the background. At first, I could not make out what they were as I was “in the zone” timing compressions, calling for medication, and evaluating the rhythm. As we cycled through more rounds of CPR, I recognized that what I was hearing in the background were Quranic verses and for the first time in my medical career, I began to feel uncomfortable with emotion. For a brief moment, I was looking past the rhythm strip and mechanical nature of my code to a deeper window into this patient in front of me. This was a person. She was a Muslim. I imagined that her family wanted to surround her with the protective verses of the Quran as she lay in her hospital bed, altered and very ill. There I was trying to revive her, knowing that given her co-morbidities, there was very little chance of me doing so. She was human. I was human. From that moment and my experiences leading up to it, I have learned to not wholly exclude the idea of faith from patient care.

Share a prayer or well wish for a patient or loved one in the comments.

A native New Yorker, Dr. Babar is passionate about classic literature, studying novel advancements in medical therapy, and helping younger generations foster a shared curiosity for all things science. Dr. Babar is a 2021–2022 Doximity Op-Med Fellow.

Image by nadia_bormotova / GettyImages

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