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How religious literacy can save lives

(RNS) Failure to acknowledge how faith impacts medical care can lead to challenges and even life-threatening situations.

A Muslim woman touches a wooden wall as she prays at the shrine of Sheikh Abdul Qadir Jeelani, a Sufi saint, during the holy fasting month of Ramadan in Srinagar, India, on June 7, 2016. Photo courtesy of Reuters/Danish Ismail

(RNS) While on clinical rotations, I helped treat a patient who seemed to be fainting every other day from hypoglycemia.

Ms. K. had been diagnosed with diabetes over a year ago but had only started to have this problem recently.

After learning more about her social history and background, I discovered that she was a practicing Muslim and was fasting because of the holy month of Ramadan.

As a Muslim medical student, I realized providers need to have a baseline familiarity with the practices of various faith traditions.

Religious literacy enables doctors and nurses to better treat a diverse set of patients. Often these needs can be overlooked when the nuances of faith traditions are not understood, or even considered.

Other providers had considered adjusting Ms. K.’s diabetes medications or ordering extensive lab work without fully realizing the reasons for her recurrent hypoglycemia.

During Ramadan, which this year began on May 26 and ends next week, Muslims all over the world are abstaining from food and drink during the daylight hours. And yes, that includes even water – one of the most common questions Muslims get from non-Muslims.

RELATED: In Ramadan, Muslim diabetics toe a fine line

How does Ramadan impact the health of the 3.3 million Muslims living in the United States, some of whom need medical treatment? Are health care providers ready to thoughtfully assist?

In Islam, fasting is only mandatory if a person is healthy. If people are ill or pregnant, they can make up the fast at a later time. I explained to Ms. K. that fasting would place her life at risk and that people with chronic diseases are granted the option of donating food to the poor instead of fasting.

Among the aspects of Islam I find most beautiful are these exemptions for health reasons.

The Quran states that Allah does not wish to cause excessive hardship through fasting and that the main lessons of Ramadan are about self-discipline and spiritual re-centering.

When I discussed these points with Ms. K., she was thankful she could continue practicing her faith without jeopardizing her health. How many doctors would have been able to present her with that option?

Fasting is a relatively common practice among world religions; in addition to Muslims, Jews, Hindus, Jains and others may be fasting at any given time.

Health care providers should be aware of their patient’s cultural practices and be able to suggest options for maintaining medication compliance without transgressing the person’s faith.

Failure to acknowledge how faith impacts medical care can lead to challenges and even life-threatening situations.

During my surgery rotation, I learned of a team that was preparing to perform a simple gallbladder operation. As the team wheeled the patient into the operating room, the patient mentioned that she was a Jehovah’s Witness and would not consent to blood transfusions.

Although the operation was straightforward and would likely not require any blood products, the team decided to delay the surgery to implement Cell Saver, a machine developed with the input of Jehovah’s Witnesses that collects and sterilizes patients’ own blood and delivers it back to them, if needed.

Other practices are more specific to certain traditions. When one Sikh patient on our service expressed concern about shaving his hair, the surgeon explained that hair follicles are often foci for infections and that the risk of surgical complications would increase dramatically if the hair were not removed. The patient, whose faith requires him not to cut his hair, ultimately consented to the hair removal.

While some providers are uncomfortable broaching the subject of religion, others find it helpful to ask open-ended questions and allow patients to answer.

For example, a doctor might ask, “How important is religion/spirituality in your life,” or “Are there any aspects of your faith/spiritual practice that might affect your health”?

For patients, it’s helpful to volunteer the subject during routine doctor visits. Constructive conversations about religion and health are often a two-way street, and both parties should take care to respect the beliefs of the other.

The main pitfall of increased religious literacy among health providers is generalization. Not all people keep the same faith practices. Therefore, health care providers must strike a balance between understanding religious diversity and respecting patients’ individual preferences.

Understanding and accommodating diverse religions is central to my identity both as a Muslim and as a health care provider.

Whenever I enter the hospital, I am reminded of a verse from the Quran, previously written in the Talmud, “Whoever saves the life of one, it is as if they have saved the lives of all of mankind” (Quran 5:82 and Talmud Sanhedrin 37a).

(Aamir Hussain is a medical student at the University of Chicago Pritzker School of Medicine. He is an alumni of Interfaith Youth Core and he developed this article in collaboration with Inter magazine)

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