Mar 26, 2018 at 12:00am ET By Alyssa Walker

Ever ask yourself how your belief system influences your work? As a medical student on the brink of treating patients, you need to.

Religious issues in our society regularly appear in the news. As med students, you need to be aware that religion may play a big role—or a small role—in your patients’ lives. You also need to acknowledge the role it plays or doesn’t play in your own life.

Let’s take a closer look at five ways religion makes an impact on your work.

1. Health, wellness, and religion are linked

Yale’s research group—the Yale Program for Medicine Spirituality, and Religion—works to understand how religion plays a role in health and wellness. Scholars and physicians study how religious and spiritual beliefs influence choices on death and grieving, and ideas of “justice and fairness.”

A 2012 article in the American Journal of Lifestyle Medicine found that religion and spirituality played a critical role in health—specifically men’s health and wellness. The researchers found that religious and personal beliefs could increase positive health outcomes and decrease risk factors for men’s health problems, specifically related to prostate cancer, and palliative care.

A 2001 paper, “The role of spirituality in healthcare,” examined the role physicians play in treating the whole patient—physical, emotional, social, and spiritual—to the benefit of the patient and caregiver.

The conclusions? Spirituality and religion are important aspects of patient care, especially as they face chronic illness, suffering, and loss.

2. A doctor’s religion may influence treatment

A 2015 research article, published in J Pain Symptom Manage “Religion, Spirituality, and the Hidden Curriculum: Medical Student and Faculty Reflections” found that a physician’s personal thoughts on religion and spirituality also play a role in how they treat patients.

They found religion and spirituality to be helpful or “protective” for medical students in four areas: emotional stress, loss of compassion, work-life balance, and relationship strife.

Physicians and medical students who identified as “nonreligious” or “nonspiritual” overwhelmingly stated that they struggled with the emotional stress of caring for sick patients, especially when it came to death and dying, family issues, domestic violence, or terminal illnesses.

That same group also noted an uptick in their perceived lack of compassion towards dealing with difficult situations, like losing patients. The more religious patients did not report feeling “desensitized” or having a lack of compassion.

Nonreligious and nonspiritual students and physicians also noted that they struggled more with work-life balance and had a harder time navigating relationships in their personal lives than those who had religion or spirituality in their lives.

3. It’s a tough subject, but worth discussing

We often avoid hard conversations.

As a medical student and physician, you can’t. Your patients depend on you.

Asking open-ended questions is one way to break the ice with patients. Questions like “What do you think” can help patients voice how they want to approach a problem without them feeling judged for what they believe.

If asking questions outright won’t work, many physicians use intake forms. By having a “religious preference” section, the patient can choose to answer or not—and that gives you a way to talk about issues.

If your patients bring up religious issues with you, first step? Listen. Not sure how to do that? Be quiet. Let the silence grow. Your patients will talk.

If a patient ever asks you to pray with them, you can if you’re comfortable, but if you’re not, you can observe silently and respectfully.

If you ever feel uncomfortable, it’s not wrong to ask for help—talk to a mentor or a co-worker who may be able to help you.

4. Avoid generalizations

As a medical student, you should have a basic understanding of major religions—and you should avoid generalizations and judgments.

For example, it might be helpful to know some religious decisions that affect health. Jehovah’s Witnesses decline blood transfusions, Muslims fast during Ramadan, Sikhs often don’t cut their body hair.

Bottom line? Your patients need to feel comfortable talking with you and you need to have a basic understanding of their belief system.

If you don’t? Get educated. The best way? Ask your patients with respect and kindness.

5. Practicing religion in hospitals varies by country

If you’re thinking about studying medicine abroad, you need to be aware of where you are and how religion plays a role in society.

In some countries, religion plays a big role in everyday life.

In Israel, there are synagogues in hospitals. Prayer is a common part of hospital life. Sabbath day is observed.

In other countries, there are different spiritual and religious services available, depending on specific communities.

Our advice? Do your research, figure out what you’re comfortable doing, and bottom line—get educated.

Learn more about becoming a doctor. 

Alyssa Walker is a freelance writer, educator, and nonprofit consultant. She lives in the White Mountains of New Hampshire with her family.

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