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In Theory: Are a doctor's religious values important?

Should a physician's attitudes reflect those of the patients he or she treats?

September 08, 2010

A study in the Journal of Medical Ethics found that doctors, independent of specialty, who described themselves as non-religious, were "more likely than others to report having given continuous deep sedation until death, having taken decisions they expected or partly intended to end life. …" The study concluded that "greater acknowledgement of doctors' values "should be advocated when it comes to clinical decision-making." What do you think? Do you agree with the findings of this study? Are a doctor's religious values, or lack thereof, critical components of the practice of medicine?

We don't like to talk about the subject of death and often mask it with euphemisms such as "passing away," and "going to a better place." So it is not unexpected that the issue of end-of-life care would be fraught with all kinds of ethical, spiritual and emotional baggage. Add to that a study indicating that a doctor's religious perspective may affect his or her decision about supporting the end of life for a terminally ill patient, and we can expect all kinds of strong reactions.

As a Unitarian Universalist minister, my perspective on this subject is that we are all affected by our beliefs about life and death, and that includes doctors. To expect a doctor not to be influenced by his or her religious views is unrealistic. The question here is whose religious views we believe to be the right ones. The bias of this study seems to be that those doctors who choose to provide deep sedation that is likely to speed up the death process are doing a "bad" thing, while doctors who do not do so are doing a "good" thing.

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The critical piece for me is the discussion that the doctor has had with the patient. And the study indicates that it is considerably more likely that the nonreligious doctors have discussed the issue of end-of-life choices with their patients. One of the major tenets of the Unitarian Universalist tradition is the affirmation of "the inherent worth and dignity of every person." It is, therefore, my belief that the doctor and the patient are the ones who need to be in accord on life-and-death choices.

To prolong life for the sake of one's religious beliefs when doing so is not the will of the terminally ill patient is, from my perspective, a serious breach of medical ethics supported by the classical Hippocratic Oath to "keep them from harm." I believe that we should honor a person's desire to die with dignity, whether that death is prolonged or supported.

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