Personal beliefs, faith and Medical Practice – call for a universal code of tolerance

I am sure if there was a finishing school for public sector workers in leadership roles then rule #1 would be never talk about sex, politics or religion. It always gets you into trouble! I am certainly not looking for trouble or controversy but I do want to highlight to you a GMC document released over the weekend (Personal Beliefs) that is a “must read” – and one that I hope you will all find useful in reconciling what may be strong personal beliefs, patient beliefs and clinical practice. The bottom line is always put the patient first; his or her needs must super cede any individual beliefs, as the GMC’s guidance makes clear. The guidance talks of our personal beliefs including political, religious or moral beliefs and says: “While we do not impose unnecessary restrictions on doctors, we expect them to be prepared to set aside their personal beliefs where this is necessary in order to provide care in line with the principles in Good Medical Practice.”

We take great pride in Birmingham in welcoming Medical Students from a huge range of backgrounds and beliefs and as you will be aware Dr June Jones has helped co-ordinate this domain across the School for many years. The photograph “The Same Difference” which illustrates and celebrates the rich cultural diversity in our student body (on show on the ground floor near the Leonard Deacon Lecture theatre) is testament to this diversity. But we are also all too aware of the conflicts that may arise from personal religious beliefs and practicing Medicine in the UK. The GMC guidance highlights some areas where conflicts may arise relating to patients’ faiths – Jehovah’s witnesses and blood transfusion, male circumcision, termination, but also areas where our own beliefs might impair patient care. The guidance indicates that for some patients a face veil worn by a doctor may present an obstacle to effective communication and the development of trust, which is part of why we do not permit students to wear a veil and I would add to that example the importance of shaking a patient’s hand if offered. Equally, you may have firm religious beliefs on termination but these cannot impair your overriding duty of care to the patient. The advice is equally relevant to the individuals who have no religious faith, in optimally managing patients you must take their beliefs into consideration, however puzzling or baffling it may be for you to reconcile.

There will be many occasions in your careers where this issue arises. The guidance is extremely helpful but you must also all find your own ways of negotiating these scenarios based on your own backgrounds and beliefs. For what it is worth, I find my “universal church of tolerance” a good starter for ten, that in many ways merely extends one’s inbuilt core values to medical practice: 1) the understanding that all of us can believe what we wish, 2) that I respect other individual’s views irrespective of whether I believe it or not and 3) not to impose my personal beliefs on others, and importantly 4) my beliefs and perceptions must never detract from my overriding duty to provide care for patients who are in need of medical treatment.

I hope I have passed the “finishing school test” – but this is important and I know that you will all find the guidance helpful.

PM Stewart

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