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ICU medics in the US don’t discuss religion

04 September 2015

iSTOCK

DOCTORS working in intensive-care units are not discussing religion or spirituality with families, despite the fact that these beliefs are important to many, a new American study suggests.

Researchers studied recordings of 249 conversations between "surrogate decision-makers", such as the families of the patients, and health-care professionals, in six intensive-care units across the United States between 2009 and 2012.

Discussion of religious or spiritual matters took place in 16 per cent (40 out of 249) conversations. In most (26) of these, the issue was raised by the surrogates. They talked about miracles, and religious practices, ideas, and community.

Researchers found that the most common responses by health-care professionals was that they "redirected the conversation to medical considerations", or "offered to involve hospital spiritual-care providers or the patient’s own religious or spiritual community", or expressed empathy. In three instances they did explain their own religious beliefs.

The study found that three-quarters (77.6 per cent) of the surrogates described religion or spirituality as "fairly or very important" in their life.

"Clinicians should try to determine whether patients’ religious and spiritual beliefs may affect the kind of medical care that is respectful of what is important to the patient," the lead researcher, Dr Douglas B. White, of the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine, told Reuters.

The President of the College of Health Care Chaplains, the Revd Mark Burleigh, said this week that, in the UK "generally, doctors would only be led into these issues if they were brought up by relatives rather than introducing the subject of religion or spirituality. If there was a religious or spiritual issue that they identified, those that appreciate the role of chaplaincy — not all doctors, of course — would offer to ask a chaplain to see the family."

Doctors working in the NHS said that there was good provision for addressing spiritual needs in intensive-care units here. Dr Tom Simpson, who works at Guy’s and St Thomas’s NHS Foundation Trust, in London, said that, while working in this environment, he would "make a point of asking" about religion and spirituality.

He added: "Chaplains are active and visible, making themselves available at all hours to provide support. There has always been 24/7 on-call cover wherever I’ve worked, and every effort has been made to meet the needs of patients when they arise."

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