Confronting “Bad Faith” in Medicine

 

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This month’s reading focused on a sensitive topic – religion. When people mention religion and medicine, most people jump to abortion; however, there’s a frightening array of issues that involve religion in the setting of modern medicine. Bad Faith: When Religious Belief Undermines Modern Medicine covers these topics in depth. The preventable deaths caused by “faith healings” is the main focus of this book.

Several church groups and religious organizations shun the advancements of modern medicine on the basis of faith. Most notably, “Christian Scientists” refuse all medical treatments except those to set broken bones and a few other necessary treatments. Vaccinations, surgeries, antibiotics, and most medications are strictly forbidden by the Church. Instead, they seek “treatment” in the form of prayer.

Religious belief is a touchy subject. Many providers have difficulty understanding why people would refuse life-saving care in favor of prayer. There is little debate in how adults can choose to treat themselves. If a Jehovah’s Witness refuses a much-needed blood transfusion, that is their choice to make. This is the same for any patient, whether or not they choose this for religious reasons. Legal adults of sound mind are able to sign AMA (against medical advice) forms.

The greater problem lies in the children of these “faith-healers.” On the basis of their religious belief, parents deny their children medical care – which lawmakers refer to as “medical neglect. In the state of Arizona, there are multiple religious protections in place, including protections to avoid vaccinating school-age children. Although anti-vaxxers (religious or otherwise) have been refuted repeatedly due to overwhelming evidence in support of vaccinations, many continue to refuse to vaccinate their children against potentially deadly diseases.

It is my strong opinion that every adult person should be able to dictate their care. They have the right to refuse medical treatment and care. That belief, however, should not automatically apply to their children. An infant or a child cannot consent to medical care. In the medical community, we rely on the patient’s parents or guardians to provide that consent. The issue is that children cannot refuse medical care either, which unfortunately falls to the responsibility of the parents. The default practice should be, then, to provide care when children are sick and in emergencies, regardless of parental consent. The type of care provided may be subject to religious relief (such as avoiding blood transfusions), but parents should not be able to refuse care completely. Naturally that creates the issue of where the boundary lies. Providers and medical staff often end up court-ordering care for pediatric patients, which depends on the decision of a judge.

“Faith healers” can specifically refer to Christian Scientist “practitioners” who provide “care” in the form of prayers. The quotations are there because these people in no way provide actual medical care. Under Arizona law, these people are exempt from medical licensing. They can provide “care” yet they are not liable for the outcome of their “patients,” nor are they regulated in any way. This lack of accountability is something a physician would never dream of, a point made in Paul Offit’s book.

Doctors can be part of the problem as well. Per Arizona law, doctors and medical personnel can refuse to provide services based on their religious beliefs. This means refusing to prescribe birth control, perform abortions, collect umbilical cord blood (for stem cells), and end-of-life care. Notice that most of these cases are related to women’s health. (If you have the time, read Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s scathing dissent of the Hobby Lobby ruling and the importance of reproductive rights). One pharmacist made headlines for refusing to provide a patient with abortion-inducing medication (even though the fetus had already died inside her.) Physicians and other healthcare providers should be required to perform and provide the services needed of them.

In the same way that providers would have to respect a patient’s religious belief, providers should respect their lack of religious belief.  Jehovah’s Witnesses do not believe in blood transfusions. I disagree with this, but I would respect that adult patient’s wishes. By the same logic, a patient requesting an abortion (for any reason) should be able to receive that procedure safely from a doctor, regardless of whether the doctor personally objects. A doctor’s personal conflicts, political leanings, or religious beliefs have no place in patient care. The physician is not a god, is not a judge of people’s moral actions. The physician’s duty is to provide the care needed.

I don’t have anything against religion in particular. In fact, Mr Offit’s book makes several points about the importance of faith. He even uses the New Testament and Jesus’ treatment of children to support medical care and protection for children. I would also like to note that some of the cases mentioned in the book involved religions and religious leaders who explicitly recommended medical care for the sick and dying, which individuals chose to ignore. The issue isn’t religion, but how religious belief becomes warped and causes harm in the realm of medicine.

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