Exclusive GPs can pray with their patients as long as they ensure patients are ‘receptive' to the offer, medical defence experts have claimed, amid mounting confusion and controversy over the role of religion in general practice.
New guidance from the Medical Defence Union quotes a letter from a GMC official suggesting that a ‘tactful' offer to pray could be appropriate, after the GMC issued a formal warning to Dr Richard Scott, a GP in Margate, Kent, for discussing his faith with a patient.
The GMC told Pulse it stands by the letter from Jane O'Brien, Assistant Director for Standards and Fitness to Practise, published in the Daily Telegraph in 2009, which states: ‘Nothing in the GMC's guidance Personal Beliefs and Medical Practice precludes doctors from praying with their patients.'
GMC chief executive Niall Dickson this week acknowledged that it could be ‘challenging' to know if a patient wanted to discuss religion.
‘Conversations about faith should not be a starting point,' he said. ‘Doctors can however sensitively explore whether a patient may wish to discuss their own faith when it is appropriate to their care and then provide spiritual support if this is what the patient wants."
The latest advice follows the case of Dr Richard Scott, who made national headlines in May when he said he would formally reject an official warning from the GMC for discussing his faith with a patient. Dr Scott told Pulse he received, and rejected, the official warning this week, and now ‘fully expects' to face a public hearing.
Pulse has learned Dr Scott is the second GP to be reprimanded by the GMC over the role of religion in recent years. In 2009 Dr Michael Noronha, a Warrington GP, received a formal warning for risking ‘bringing the profession into disrepute' after six patient complaints in five months.
Pressure is now intensifying on the GMC to offer definitive guidance on the issue.
Dr Andrew Freeman, a GP in Mossley, Greater Manchester, said: ‘The guidance isn't clear enough. We are told to judge the patient's receptiveness to religion, but in the Dr Scott case it was not the patient, but their family, that took exception. If GPs are given better guidance and more help where to draw the line, it will improve care for patients, their relatives and doctors.'
Dr Matthew Shaw, a GP in Reading, added: ‘The way the guidance is implemented can give the impression that there is a blanket ban on discussing religion. There is a climate of fear among managers. The reaction from most managers is ‘this is a hot potato, let's kick it into the grass' rather than dealing with it.'
But Dr Shaba Nabi, a GP in Bristol, said: ‘To even consider bringing religion into consultations is unacceptable. It's as bizarre as bringing up witchcraft or folklore. I'm extremely respectful of patients that are religious. That is their personal belief, but we shouldn't bring our personal beliefs into consultations.'
Professor Reverend Catti Moss, a GP in Northamptonshire and Church of England priest, told Pulse her theological training helped her practise but she was conscious of not pushing religion into consultations.‘I don't have a problem with patients knowing about my work as a priest,' she said. ‘If they want me to talk about Christianity or want me to pray with them I will, but I'm not going to suggest it.'
What the GMC says
"Nothing in the GMC's guidance Personal Beliefs and Medical Practice (2008) precludes doctors from praying with their patients. It says that the focus must be on a patient's needs and wishes.
"Any offer to pray should follow on from a discussion which establishes that the patient might be receptive. It must be tactful, so that the patient can decline without embarrassment – because, while some may welcome the suggestion, others may regard it as inappropriate."
Source: GMC letter to the Daily Telegraph, 2009