It is widely recognized, and accepted, that accommodating a patient’s belief systems could result in a more positive therapeutic encounter. But the idea that a health care provider’s beliefs could figure into the therapeutic encounter – including clinical decision-making – is often met with aversion, discomfiture or denial.
One explanation for this might be the fact that health care workers are trained to adopt an evidence-based and objective mindset, where there should be little or no place for something as unquantifiable as beliefs. It is important, however, to acknowledge the reality that health care professionals – who are, after all, human – do harbor beliefs and may draw on them, knowingly or inadvertently, within their practices.
Studies have found that there are many physicians who do not deny leveraging their religious beliefs in clinical practice and decision-making. One study found that 55% of physicians agreed with the statement “My religious beliefs influence my practice of medicine.”
But, as anthropologists have written, cultural ideas and even intellectual/professional traditions can also fall under the category of beliefs. Therefore, adherence – despite evidence to the contrary – by a health care provider to certain medical paradigms can be defined as beliefs. Studies show that these types of cultural/professional beliefs do enter into clinicians’ decision-making.
This could result in care that is aligned with the patient’s best interest and autonomy - but if this tendency is misused, harmful outcomes for patients could ensue. In order to ensure this doesn’t happen, health care workers need to learn to: a) recognize when they’re drawing on their personal beliefs; and b) navigate this appropriately within their clinical encounters with patients.
It is precisely because there is no formula for this that dialogue surrounding this issue should not be avoided in the name of preserving an evidence-based, scientific image of health care. Health care providers should be given a safe environment in which to develop the self-awareness that is necessary to navigate their beliefs during the clinical encounter.
Frank and candid dialogue surrounding this issue should be invited within the various health care professions from the point of training and throughout the practice years. As well, clinicians should be encouraged to explore the growing body of literature surrounding this topic. Many studies already exist that describe clinician tendencies with respect to the use of their beliefs in practice, and that suggest methods to recognize and channel these for optimal patient outcomes.
All this is not to say that clinicians must cast aside their beliefs (religious or otherwise) when working to deliver safe, effective and compassionate care. But it is important for clinicians to boldly acknowledge the inevitable, and very human, presence of their own beliefs and the potential for these to surface in their practices.