Tanenbaum’s Health Care program was recently invited to conduct a series of presentations at a hospital in New Jersey. Over the course of two days we addressed the following three questions:
- Why should we address religious diversity?
- When do religious beliefs and practices intersect with patient care?
- And how can we communicate respectfully with patients and their families to improve health care results?
What made our experience all the more interesting was that we were asked to customize our trainings for a diverse cross-section of their staff – representing a number of departments, professional roles and specialties. This cross-departmental approach to training is something we don’t often see and it impressed us. By using this institutional method, there is a higher probability that employees will be able to support each other across departments to address the religious needs of their patients and families.
Hospitals typically engage with the topic of cultural competency from the perspective of patient interactions with nurses and/or physicians. While these interactions are a central piece of a patient’s experience when accessing care, narrowly focusing on cultural competency leaves out a number of other key individuals (admissions staff, security guards, housekeeping etc.) who interact with patients outside of a clinical role. These professionals also need to be aware of when religion becomes an issue in the hospital setting and how to prepare for and manage these situations. We were excited to be able to address this often neglected audience.
Our diverse audience led to a number of very interesting anecdotes and discussions. One topic that we often cover in our trainings, and that generally leads to a lot of questions and discussion, is the issue of “proselytizing.” During a 3-hour training we conducted, a member of the house keeping staff realized that while his interactions with a patient he was trying to comfort had been well-meaning, in hindsight, they may not have been appropriate.
For a hospital setting we define “proselytizing” as “inappropriate religious expression.” Given patients’ vulnerability when they come into a hospital, it is especially important that staff be conscious of their position of authority and understand that what is comforting to them may not necessarily be helpful or comforting to the patient. This awareness is especially important because patients may feel too uncomfortable, too ill, or too intimidated to voice their concerns or discomfort. We provided some guidelines for health care staff to demonstrate their concern and support in an appropriate way.
Another interesting theme that emerged was the issue of knowing and using available resources. One of our case studies illustrated the concern of a Buddhist patient regarding the use of pain medication. It was their preference to try alternative remedies such as meditation or acupuncture before using pain medication. During the discussion, a member of the Pastoral Care department reminded the other training participants that this was something that her office could coordinate. Improved cross-departmental communication and interaction can prevent these types of resources from dropping under the radar and can help patients get the patient-centered care that they need and deserve.
The provision of religio-culturally competent care must be an institutional commitment and team effort across departments and professional roles.