Many people might think this is okay –
Community nurse Caroline Petrie, 45, says she asked an elderly woman patient during a home visit if she wanted her to say a prayer for her.
I don’t. Nor would most health care professionals, religious or not. And unlike others who have blogged on this, I have the guts to leave my comments open.
A health care practitioner works in a hospital to provide one thing – health care. This can range from medical therapy to a good bedside manner. But offering religious services is outside any health care provider’s purview. Prayer is not a part any standard of care that I am aware of (and I have worked in a hospital setting). Such intercessory prayer has been extensively studied, with the largest (the STEP1 and MANTRA2,3 studies) showing almost no effect whatsoever. I say ‘almost’ because the STEP paradigm was of a clever design and was able tell show that people who knew they were being prayed for actually had worse outcome.
If you look using Pubmed using the search term ‘intercessory prayer’ you will indeed find published papers supporting a positive effect of prayer. Interesting, you might think. That is, until you take a look at the quality of journals that these papers are published in, such as the Journal of Alternative Medicine. Publications such as these are known as ‘bottom-feeder journals’, journals willing to publish any piece of crap which comes across the editor’s desk and often without peer-review. Researchers try very hard to get their work published in the most cited journals, and if this is the best they can do you can be pretty sure the content isn’t worth its equivalent in toilet paper.
So, it has been pretty well established that Petrie’s actions are very unlikely to have any positive effect. Even so, she defends her actions –
“My faith got stronger and I realised God was doing amazing things in my life.
“I saw my patients suffering and as I believe in the power of prayer, I began asking them if they wanted me to pray for them. They are absolutely delighted.”
I have no doubt that many may very well be quite happy to be prayed for. It is, however, irrelevant. Soliciting such ‘indulgences’, whether for free or not, is outside any standard of care. It’s simply not allowed. If the patient has spiritual needs, professionals are available to handle these needs and in such a case the health care worker should refer such people to them.
What’s the harm, you might ask? If prayer does nothing, then nothing is lost. But this is not so. Medicine, and Science in general, needs to keep the wolves at bay. There are doctors out there that believe medicine will be reduced to ‘prayer and Prozac’.4 This is scary stuff. If we allow health care practitioners to introduce unproven techniques into the standard of care, why not have a hospital where the only therapy is prayer? Why not a homeopathy hospital? This spiritual crap will erode evidence-based medicine to the point where MDs will be no more than members of the ‘Brylcreem set’ with lab coats.
Indeed, Petrie’s actions impacted on her patient’s welfare – the patient was upset enough to make a complaint. Simply put, Petrie acted improperly and unprofessionally, and the hospital took the appropriate action –
A spokesman for North Somerset Primary Care Trust said: “Caroline Petrie has been suspended pending an investigation into the matter.
“She is a bank nurse and has been told we will not be using her in this capacity until the outcome of our investigation is known.
“We always take any concerns raised by our patients most seriously and conscientiously investigate any matter of this nature brought to our attention.
“We are always keen to be respectful of our patients’ views and sensitivity as well as those of our staff.”
Alison Withers, Mrs Petrie’s boss at the time, wrote to her at the end of November saying: ‘As a nurse you are required to uphold the reputation of your profession.
‘Your NMC (Nursing Midwifery Council) code states that “you must demonstrate a personal and professional commitment to equality and diversity” and “you must not use your professional status to promote causes that are not related to health“.’ [Emphasis mine.]
Had this not involved religion (and Christianity, at that) we would have heard nary a peep. Had it been a witch doctor asking if he could do an animal sacrifice for the patient, would that still be okay? To a Christian it may seem to be a different situation (I suppose it is for the chicken), but it isn’t.
I have no doubt that Petrie’s actions were well-intentioned. But that is irrelevant. Being a member of a widely followed religion does not give her carte blanche to overstep her bounds as a health care provider. The hospital is correctly taking the matter seriously, and Petrie completely misses the reason why. This is not, as pundit Melanie Philips writes, “how society dies”. The religious are not being persecuted. This is about professionalism in providing medical care. There is no right to convert people, yet try to take a religious person’s perceived and imaginary right to cram their beliefs down everyone else’s throat and just listen to the wailing and gnashing of teeth! I’ve never figured out why the religious are surprised when those of us who do not share their beliefs get upset at the assumption that we non-believers will validate their own just because they are religious beliefs. As Sam Harris has said, we do not condone stupidity unless it is religious stupidity. And this nurse allowed her religious beliefs to override the standards of conduct of her profession and those of the hospital she worked in. As PZ Myers quipped when he was in Calgary ten days ago, religion should be like masterbation – it makes you feel good, should be done in private and should not be a requirement in running for public office.
How is it that the patient in question, 79 year old May Phippen, gets it –
‘I have Christian beliefs myself and maybe she meant well. But it could perhaps be upsetting for some other people if they have different beliefs or thought that she meant they looked in such a bad way that they needed praying for.’
when Petrie completely misses something which should be second nature to her?
I am not for firing this woman. Nurses are important people and we need more of them. But it should be made abundantly clear that this is not acceptable. At the hospital, she is a nurse, not a priest, and should act in a manner befitting the former rather than the latter. Perhaps a course in medical ethics might be a good thing to order her to attend. What bothers me is that many people miss the point of what is going on and attribute it to religious persecution instead. No one is attacking Petrie’s freedom of religion. But religion should be personal, particularly in such a workplace as a hospital. I think even wearing a cross at work is gauche and I do not wear my scarlet ‘A’ at work either.
Petrie was suspended without pay since December 17, and is expecting a decision following a disciplinary hearing next week.
(With thanks to PZ Myers for the original post on Pharyngula.)
- Benson H et al. Study of the therapeutic effects of intercessory prayer (STEP) in cardiac bypass patients: A multicenter randomized trial of uncertainty and certainty of receiving intercessory prayer. American Heart Joural 151:934-42 (2006)
- Krucoff MW et al. Integrative noetic therapies as adjuncts to percutaneous intervention during unstable coronary syndromes: Monitoring and actualization of noetic training (MANTRA) feasibility pilot. American Heart Joural 142:761 (2001)
- Krucoff MW et al. Music, imagery, touch, and prayer as adjuncts to interventional cardiac care: the Monitoring and Actualisation of Noetic Trainings (MANTRA) II randomised study. Lancet 366:211-7 (2005)
- Sloan RP. Blind Faith: The unholy alliance of religion and medicine. St. Martin’s Griffin, 2008