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Religion & medicine: How can doctors navigate these conversations?

Medicine and religion can come at odds. The current debate over vaccine exemptions for religious reasons is one current example. As measles outbreaks surge throughout the country, lawmakers and doctors are forced to consider the difficult balance between respecting an individual's religious liberties and the health of society.

The vaccine debate is just one example of the discussions doctors may find themselves navigating with their patients. Physicians can find themselves facing religious questions from patients in everything from an attempt by the patient to align their care with a similar-minded medical professional to concerns that treatment may be against their beliefs.

What is a physician to do? Unfortunately, there is not a clear-cut answer. The right approach will vary with each physician in each situation. However, as recently discussed in the American Medical Association's Journal of Ethics, it is important to remember that the practice of medicine often requires a physician take on more than a "bureaucratic and technological" role.

Physicians that find themselves in a theological conversation with a patient may find it best to attempt to guide the conversation with a patient back to a discussion of medical needs and treatment options. If the patient is adamant about religious concordance, it may help to discuss the matter with other members of the practice. In some cases, a physician within the practice may have valuable advice or be better situated to provide a particular patient with medical care that meet their needs while respecting similar traditions.

Is there potential for larger problems? A failure to address the issue could result in complaints and potential licensing issues. If a patient has voiced frustration and reached out to the licensing board it may be wise to take action to protect the practice's interests. An attorney experienced in licensing issues can help.

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