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Why Hospitals Should Make Space for Prayer

Op-Med is a collection of original articles contributed by Doximity members.

Lactation rooms. Hallways. Parking garages. Conference rooms. Kitchens. Patient rooms. Stairwells. These are some of the many odd places where I have found myself kneeling down to pray throughout my medical training. I have prostrated on paper towels, notes, or, when I was lucky, a prayer rug. For Muslims like myself who observe the five daily prayers, finding a space to pray can be extremely challenging inside the hospital walls, where designated areas for quiet worship are few and far between.

Religion, spirituality, and meditation are inextricably linked with the medical setting. For one, more than 75% of Americans ascribe to a certain religion based on 2014 U.S. Religious Landscape Study data. The ubiquitousness of religion in the U.S. means that our patients will relate to and benefit from spiritually-sensitive care and utilize spaces that accommodate religious practice. In addition, medical staff have faith-related needs to attend to while in the hospital. Secondly, spirituality plays pivotal roles in wellness, coping with illness and loss, and promoting healing and recovery. The very presence of hospital chaplains, who offer spiritual guidance for patients and families, acknowledges the need for spiritual havens in the hospital setting. 

Hospitals have increasingly added interfaith or meditation rooms across the country in recognition of the fact that there needs to be a space for patients, their families, and hospital workers to connect with their ascribed faith. While a majority of the religious U.S. ascribes to Christianity, other faiths such as Judaism, Islam, Buddhism, Hinduism, and more are followed by millions of Americans across the country. This diversity of religious sentiment further emphasizes the importance of having not only a space for spiritual connection, but one that is all-inclusive and allows for various forms of religious practice. Such spaces should also be welcoming for those who are atheists, agnostics, or do not follow any faith at all. Prayer areas in hospitals that previously may have catered to only certain faiths have even been modified to allow for all faiths to comfortably practice. 

For patients unable to physically travel to interfaith rooms, patient rooms provide another good option for somewhat private spiritual practice. Clinicians should be aware that patients may use their rooms in ways unfamiliar to them to practice their faith (e.g., prostrating or kneeling on the ground, praying or meditating in their beds, using prayer beads, reading holy scriptures). This is another reason that familiarizing ourselves with patients’ spiritual needs is important. Patients may also be inclusive of their clinicians in their spiritual practice. I vividly recall an anxious mother and father asking us, her medical providers, to join them in prayer before their infant was taken away for surgery. A moment of silence on the part of a medical team can imbue families with not only peace and comfort, but also reassurance that they are receiving holistic medical care from their providers. 

Unfortunately for medical staff, especially trainees like myself whose days are frequently engrossed in a frenzy of patient care, it is usually not possible to escape to the (typically at most) one designated area of the hospital for spiritual engagement. For those who may need to find refuge multiple times in a shift in order to pray, it is also incumbent on us to learn to navigate the different spaces in the hospital setting to best fulfill our spiritual needs. 

Having awareness of different parts of the hospital that can substitute as spiritual sanctuaries can prevent awkward or disruptive run-ins while trying to have a private moment of worship. As a medical trainee, I frequently scout out areas near my place of work that can serve as a makeshift private area (e.g., lactation room, classroom or consultation room, lightly-trafficked outdoor patio). Communication with your work team can also facilitate quiet worship in a shared space. For example, I will often pray in a shared staff lounge and ask anyone present for their permission to quietly use a corner for prayer. 

Given the importance of spirituality in many of our lives and its integral role in medicine, health, and wellness, hospitals should universally provide a private space for all faiths to practice. Fortunately, creating such a space is quite simple. A combination of open space, prayer rugs, pillows, and chairs can accommodate different forms of meditation and prayer. Ideally, a small kitchen and bathroom could also accommodate rituals that require food or physical cleansing. Such a space also provides an area for congregational services and prayer, such as Catholic mass, Shabbat service, or jumu’ah (Friday Islamic congregational prayer). Both patients and staff should feel empowered to request such an area at hospitals that do not already provide one. To ignore such a request would be to ignore the crucial role that spiritually plays in the lives, health, and healing process for patients, their families, and the medical staff who care for them.

How do you include patients' religion in their medical care? Share your faith stories in the comments below.

Sara is a Los Angeles native in her first year of pediatrics training at Seattle Children's Hospital in Seattle, WA. She enjoys reading, hiking, taco trucks, chai, and her cat, Tibby. She is a 2020–2021 Doximity Op-Med Fellow. She reports no conflicts of interest.

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