This blog is the last of a four-part series covering the topic of spirituality and healing in medicine, specifically during end-of-life care, and is based on an article by Curlin Hall.
In a pluralistic society, most authors encourage physicians to remain neutral when addressing their patients’ spiritual concerns. However, this is based on the assumption that it is actually possible for physicians to do so. Neutrality is defined as “not aligned with or supporting any position; indefinite.” Any human being, physician or not, cannot separate themselves from the specific traditions of knowledge and experience that shape their lives. Even if a physician was brought up in an atheistic culture, he is bringing with him that lens for viewing the human experience and cannot divorce himself from that when a patient voices spiritual concerns. Furthermore, as Hall states, “feigned neutrality will never be comfortable to the devout person, for whom ‘setting aside’ ones religious commitments would be a form of unfaithfulness.”
Neutrality versus Candor
The question for physicians should not be “How do I remain neutral?” The question should be, “How should a responsible physician address genuine disagreements regarding religious matters in such a way that he and the patient can respectfully negotiate a mutually acceptable accommodation?” This type of dialogue requires candor. The physician need not divulge his entire spiritual paradigm. However, he should be aware of which judgments are part of his professional consensus and those which are derived from his personal belief system. Moreover, that distinction must be made clear to his patients.
In conclusion, it is of my opinion that neutrality among physicians when addressing spiritual concerns is not possible. Neutrality among physicians should not be expected or encouraged. Instead, physicians should be encouraged to address their patients’ spiritual concerns with a spirit of wisdom and candor without neglecting their own belief system.