NHS religious data suggests higher religious affiliation

14 September 2018

NHS Trust patients divulge their beliefs

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RELIGIOUS data collected from patients receiving hospital treatment should lead us to question reports that half of the country subscribes to no religion, a professor of medicine suggested this week.

The Revd Professor Peter Selby, a consultant endocrinologist at Manchester Royal Infirmary, has studied the religious affiliation of all patients treated at his NHS trust over the past five years: 263,288 in total (those under 18 were excluded).

About a quarter (26.1 per cent) did not answer the question regarding religious belief, leaving a total of 194,538. Of these, 15.1 per cent stated that they had no religious belief; 65.5 per cent described themselves as belonging to a Christian denomination; and 18.1 per cent reported that they belonged to a non-Christian religion.

These proportions are significantly different to those gathered through NatCen’s British Social Attitudes (BSA) survey. Data from the four years between 2013 and 2016 found that 50 per cent reported no religious faith; 42 per cent were Christian, and seven per cent had a non-Christian faith. The most recent survey (News, 14 September) found an even higher percentage of “Nones”.

The age distribution of the two sets of data was not dissimilar, but the NHS data contained a greater proportion of patients aged 18 to 34. The BSA survey showed a progressively lower rate of “no religion” with advancing age: something much less marked in the other set. Even if those who declined to answer the religion question were included among the “Nones”, the total (38.2 per cent) would still be “significantly lower” than that reported by the BSA survey, Professor Selby writes in his paper.

He notes that there are limitations to his findings, however, acknowledging that the data was extracted from “a relatively circumscribed community” — a “fairly deprived urban setting in the North of England” with “much greater ethnic diversity than the general population”. This is, he writes, “significantly demographically different” from the BSA survey. The hospital serves a large South Asian population, and a significant Afro-Caribbean community. There is, he writes “no guarantee that similar results would be obtained if the study was replicated elsewhere in the country”.

His aim is to extend the study to all NHS trusts, under the Freedom of Information Act.

Professor Selby undertook the study as part of his ministerial training. Ordained this year, he is currently an NSM at St Andrew’s, Cheadle Hume. The results of his research had not surprised him, he said on Tuesday, although “the actual magnitude of the numbers was greater than I had expected.” They were borne out by conversations with chaplains, who had suggested that numbers might be similar in their trusts. The two surveys were taken in different contexts, he noted.

“I think when people are confronting health, illness, potentially even bad-news situations, an end of life situation, they begin to ask questions about fundamental things that matter to them. . . They don’t loom large on people’s agenda, and God can stay to one side, while you are enjoying your social life . . . [and] health and happiness.

“It’s only when the boat gets rocked a little bit that we perhaps have an opportunity to be saying to people ‘Well, what do you really think about these important matters?’”

The results, if repeated nationally, might point to a greater need for spiritual provision in hospitals, he argued. “If we are offering holistic care to people, we need to offer spiritual care.”

Outside chaplaincy, the Church should be considering how it could “bring the gospel message to where people are in need”, he said. “To some extent, we do it in terms of occasional offices. . . But there is another group of people who may benefit from more spiritual input, more spiritual attention, when they are approaching questions of illness.”

The Church needed to devote greater attention to “the spiritual needs of people who are not associated with the Church. . . Within a parish, there will be a visiting team who will tend to visit members of the church who are unwell; but is there some way in which we can extend that to other people who are unwell and not members of the church?”

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