News & Events

Open Letter to President Obama: Religion & Healthcare

Dear President Obama:

Healthcare is once again leading the news cycle as you search for a new Secretary of Health and Human Services candidate. While the spectrum of healthcare reform is broad and the specific steps have yet to be determined, we are confident that this is healthcare’s moment – and that this administration will ultimately succeed in improving access to quality healthcare.

While the current collective debate focuses on the uninsured, the underinsured and overall costs of our healthcare system, let’s not forget that approximately half of uninsured Americans are minorities – many of whom are immigrants with strong cultural and religious beliefs. Cultural and religious beliefs can have an enormous impact on healthcare decision-making and the provision of care, so that patients of all religions, whether majority or minority – or no religion at all – are potentially impacted the minute they walk through the hospital door.

Take modesty for example. A hospital noticed that female patients in the community were reluctant to come in for care, and after investigating the matter, the hospital learned that the women were uncomfortable with the paper gowns provided during an examination. The women’s religious beliefs included specific modesty requirements – and wearing the flimsy paper gowns made them acutely uncomfortable. Once the hospital designed new gowns with more coverage, staff saw an immediate increase in both the number of women seeking care and in their comfort level.

Too often these kinds of religious barriers to accessing healthcare fly under the radar. Some religious individuals may be reluctant to come to the hospital for treatment because they prefer to be seen by a same-sex provider for modesty reasons. Others may be concerned that providers will not respect the religious reasons behind their medical decision-making or will object to a consultation by a religious leader. Many come in for care but then hit a wall when their religious beliefs cause them to refuse certain procedures like blood transfusions or they disagree about what constitutes the end of life. Finally some may worry that if hospitalized, they will be unable to practice their religion, whether that includes dietary requirements, daily prayer or other rituals.

We urge you to ensure that the national debate around healthcare includes some discussion of cultural healthcare disparities and ways to reduce them. Meet with religious leaders to get a sense of how their communities interface with the current healthcare system. Push for medical schools and residency programs to infuse their curricula with information on religio-cultural competence so that new physicians are trained to recognize religious barriers to care. Work with states to mandate cultural competence training into licensing requirements so that physicians are continuously exposed to different cultural beliefs related to healthcare and can apply this knowledge to their interactions with diverse patients.

Lowering costs and increasing access alone won’t make America healthier – let’s take this opportunity to get it right.


Rachel Maryles
Program Associate
Religious Diversity in the Workplace
Tanenbaum Center for Interreligious Understanding