Administration and Leadership, Columns

Pro Bono: Being Sensitive to Patients’ Religious Beliefs

Issue 40 and Volume 41.

Not only is it important to respect the religious beliefs of our co-workers and employees, as discussed in last month’s column, it’s equally important to respect the religious beliefs of the patients we treat.

What if you encounter a female Muslim patient wearing a hijab? First, if it isn’t necessary to examine the head then there’s certainly no need to remove it. If the patient has a suspected head injury, or there are other medical reasons to examine the head, you should consider that many Muslim women who wear hijabs are uncomfortable taking them off in public. If the patient is conscious and doesn’t appear to have an altered mental status, you should certainly start by asking her if it’s OK if you remove her hijab.

What do you do if the patient isn’t conscious? You’re certainly permitted to remove the hijab to examine and treat the patient based on implied consent. But, if at all possible, you may want to move the patient to the inside of the ambulance or in as private an area as you have available, so that the patient’s head won’t be uncovered in public. Of course, the severity of the injuries and situation will dictate your course of action.

In seeking out a private area for female Muslim patients, it’s important to also be aware that many Muslim and Hindu patients are uncomfortable being alone with someone of the opposite sex. If you have a crew consisting of a man and a woman, the answer is simple: Have the crewmember who’s the same sex as the patient treat your Muslim or Hindu patient if the patient expresses concern. The situation becomes more difficult if you have two crewmembers of one sex and a patient of the opposite sex. If the patient expresses discomfort at being treated alone by someone of the opposite sex, perhaps you can have the patient’s spouse ride along.

Other patients may refuse lifesaving treatments or care altogether because of their religious convictions. It’s important to remember that patients who are conscious, alert and oriented to person, time, place and event have the right to refuse care and treatments after being fully informed of the risks.

But, make sure that you follow your organizational, regional and state protocols for refusals and copiously document everything in your patient care report.

An important part of being sensitive to patients’ religious beliefs is to show empathy by viewing the situation from the patient’s perspective. Recognize and respect the patient’s religious beliefs. Work with patients’ religious sensitivities to the best of your ability and appreciate the differences. The world is a very religiously and culturally diverse place, and now that travel is faster and easier than ever, it’s very likely EMS providers will encounter an increasing number of patients of very diverse backgrounds and religions.

All patients, regardless of religion, and regardless of whether they may be agnostic or atheist, should receive competent and compassionate care in a nondiscriminatory manner. The more you’re aware of the basic beliefs of each religion, the better you can respect patients’ spiritual beliefs while still providing them with the highest quality care possible.