Just like every other student in my medical program, I was required to complete 18 hours with a family physician as part of a “Family Medicine Experience”. The family doctor that I was placed with was extraordinarily kind, listened deeply to their patients, and was always willing to help me learn. But, there is one thing that has really set them apart from the other doctors that I’ve interacted with thus far – their religion. But, that’s not something you’d ever really know from an ordinary patient interaction, unless of course, that is what the patient really needed from them.

I saw that need on my very first day in the clinic. As a patient divulged the difficulties they were facing in their home life, the topic of religion made its way into the conversation. The doctor and patient had built a relationship over years, with the importance of church and faith having been woven throughout their previous conversations. A few moments later, the family doctor stepped out of the room to retrieve their bible.  They had suggested relevant biblical passages to help the patient find solace and comfort during a time of sorrow and hardship. While this approach will certainly not work for every doctor (and certainly not every patient), it was beautiful to see the involvement of faith in healing. This was not medicine in the traditional sense, but, you could visibly see healing on the patient’s face as they read the words in the bible together.

As the weeks of my placement went on, this moment would not escape my mind. My mind kept mulling over the idea of religion and how it fits into medicine. I myself am not deeply religious. Sure, I was raised as a Catholic, sang in the choir, and was confirmed, but these are not elements that weave themselves into my everyday life. A physician pulling out a bible and suggesting verses I should read, would probably be a little out of place in our interaction. But with this patient I saw? It was perfect.

On my last day as the doctor and I were completing my evaluation, I brought up that interaction I had seen 6 weeks before. I applauded the doctor for their use of religion in medicine. They thanked me. They were touched that I had noticed and were happy to have a conversation about the role of religion in medicine. Together we concluded that religion isn’t for everyone, but we are foolish if we try to take religion out of medicine completely.

Patients are holistic beings. They are not merely white blood cell counts and blood pressures on a page, waiting to be fit into check boxes of pathology or non-pathology. They are sentient beings, able to perceive and feel distinct moments of life that influence their health. For some, religion is a critical part of their healing. To ignore this fact is foolishness on the part of the physician.

Am I saying that every visit needs to start with a religious assessment, gauging how important religion is to each patient? No, certainly not. But isn’t that the crux of building relationships with your patients? Knowing them well enough that your physician spidey-senses tingle, giving you intuition on what your patients need and when?

I’m certain that I will not see an interaction like this one for quite some time. Religion in medicine is extraordinarily stigmatized. I feel as though many physicians are too scared to let religion creep into medicine, for fear that it infringes upon the auspices of evidence based medicine. After all, how do you gain evidence on intangible deities? We feel comfort in leaning upon evidence and data, so how do we work with tools that have nothing but words behind them?

All I know is that to me, this kind of interaction screams “art of medicine”. Building your practice in a way that is flexible and masterful, like a brilliant artist manipulating a paintbrush to create shadows and highlights on the same canvas. No one stroke is the same and neither are our patients.

Featured image via unsplash

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