Sharing Faith with Patients

On the 24th June Mark Pickering the Student Secretary of the Christian Medical Fellowship (CMF) came to speak to the Coptic Medical Society about how Christian doctors can share their faith with their patients. Dr. Pickering mentioned many barriers that doctors face which prevent them from talking about their faith, these included courage, uncertainty as to how to discuss spiritual issues, a lack of experience, difficulty in using the right language, the negative attitude of peers and the GMC, concern that you may be abusing your position as a doctor and finally a very real concern was a lack of time.

However, research shows that faith is important and has a strong relationship with health. There is significant evidence to show that faith has a positive impact on illness prevention, coping, recovery from surgery and even improving treatment outcomes (on the other hand faith can also have a negative impact e.g. due to feelings of guilt or condemnation). Statistics show that 71% of the public have an important spiritual belief even though many do not express it in a religious way.

So faith is important to patients and impacts on their health, but is it appropriate to talk about it in a medical setting? The answer is yes but there are three important things to remember when opening about spiritual matters:

  1. sensitivity
  2. permission
  3. respect

In Colossians 4:6 it says,

“Let your speech always be with grace, seasoned with salt, that you may know how you ought to answer each one.”

Thus we are called to be salt and light to the world… However, it is important to be just the right saltiness. Doctors know this, when treating patients there are times when a high concentration of salt is needed to help them get better whilst other times a weaker concentration is needed (and a higher concentration would be deadly).

0.9% salt – usually a healthy amount

3% salt – sometimes need this much but rarely (can be deadly if used inappropriately)

5% dextrose (sugar) – can be bland (although it is good to give sweet words, it is not enough to survive, the salt is needed as well as the nice things)

If you turn to Act 17:16-34, we see how Paul speaks to the Athenians… To begin with when he spoke in the synagogue he was misunderstood, but in the Areopagus he met them on their own territory and spoke of things they understood e.g. the Unknown God, Greek poetry. St. Paul did three important things in this second meeting with the people of Athens:

  • He created a safe environment – by talking to the people about what they feel comfortable about he made the people as comfortable as possible.
  • He used words the people could understand – St. Paul used simple words and words that the Greeks were familiar with (much like how you should not use medical jargon, you should not use Christian jargon).
  • He gave them an opportunity for questions and discussions – if you give people small amounts of the truth and then let them ask questions and show you their understanding.

As doctors it is important to know what the General Medical Council expects of doctors and if speaking about spiritual matters is against their regulations.

In the duties of a GMC registered doctor, there are 14 points to adhere to, including:

  • Respect patients’ dignity and privacy
  • Listen to patients and respect their views
  • Give patients information in a way they can understand
  • Respect the rights of patients to be fully involved in decisions about their care
  • Make sure that your personal beliefs do not prejudice your patients’ care
  • Avoid abusing your position as a doctor…

“In all these matters you must never discriminate unfairly against your patients or colleagues. And you must always be prepared to justify your actions to them”

The GMC says that if you are talking about spiritual matters, it is important to firstly give good medical care. Also, you are expected to be able to justify why what you said was important and why you said what you said. In the GMC Annual Report 1993:4, the GMC spoke regarding the doctors’ use of professional standing to promote personal interests & beliefs, it concluded that it was important to be sensitive and give good care and that it would not be right to stop doctors from addressing their beliefs.

“Do all things without murmuring and disputing, that you may become blameless and harmless, children of God without fault in the midst of a crooked and perverse generation, among whom you shine as lights in the world, holding fast the word of life, so that I may rejoice in the day of Christ that I have not run in vain or laboured in vain.” Philippians 2:14-16

These verses from the book of Philippians help us to take an eternal perspective when speaking to others. We should pray for opportunities to speak to others about God, and ask God how we can help Him serve this person in what God is doing in this person’s life. We must also consider the spiritual baggage of major influences and past experiences in the person’s life. In reality most people meet Christ through ongoing influence in friends and relatives. It is our role to help people get closer to Christ and often we can help be just one step on a long path towards Him. So some people we meet will be far from Him and maybe we can make them less sceptical about the Church or Christ whilst others will be already close to Him and we can help draw them nearer.

Sometimes it is easier to discuss spiritual matters with a patient, such as when a patient is suffering from a terminal illness or major illness or when they are in a perioperative stage. Also, during social and psychological problems like depression or at a time of loss, it may be something that the patient would like to discuss, or even during health maintenance examinations.

If it is appropriate just like taking any other history you can take a “Spiritual History”.

  • Belief – Do you have a personal faith that helps in a time like this?
  • Practice – How does this affect the way you live? Have you ever prayed about your situation?
  • Faith Community – Who gives you support? Do you belong to a faith community?

However, sometimes it is not the time for a “Spiritual History” or there simply is not time for one… in which case you can use faith flags. These are small things which raise spiritual issues in a non-threatening quick way as a natural part of conversation. They do not need a response but create an opportunity that the patient can grasp and lets them know that you are a member of God’s family. Examples of faith flags include saying thank God or when asked about your weekend saying if you went to church. Even just wearing a cross can be a faith flag.

Other people can also be involved in reaching out to patients e.g. fellow Christian healthcare professionals, chaplains or Christian counsellors, church ministries e.g. the Alpha Course or you could recommend a book or give a booklet with the permission of the patient.

The passage in Philippians 2 speaks of penetrating the darkness for this it you need light, this involves being a good doctor, a good person and someone who really cares. It is a great privilege that doctors have contact with so many people, far more people visit their doctor than go to church. Also, it takes prayer, we should ask for wisdom, opportunities, courage and to know what God is doing in each situation.

Finally, Dr. Pickering reminded us that evangelism is a process, we just try and bring people closer to God but in the end their eternal destiny is in God’s hands and although we can introduce a person to Christ it is up to them if they want to really get to know Jesus.

“Continue earnestly in prayer, being vigilant in it with thanksgiving; meanwhile, praying for us, that God would open to us a door for the word, to speak the mystery of Christ, for which I am in chains, that I may make it manifest, as I ought to speak. Walk in wisdom toward those who are outside, redeeming the time. Let your speech always be with grace, seasoned with salt, that you may know how you ought to answer each one.” (Colossians 4:2-6)

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