Religious nurses in a secular NHS

I’ve just seen the story of a Weston-Super-Mare nurse who’s been suspended after reportedly offering to pray for a patient’s recovery. She’s already being compared to the BA crucifix lady, with similarly broken arguments. The problem isn’t that she’s religious: the problem is she’s brought her religion into work, and in some jobs there are good reasons you shouldn’t do that.

Presumably, doing so makes nurses’ lives harder. I woudn’t have any problem being treated by an openly religious nurse, but I’m sure there are believers in other religions who would. What if some religious patients decide they’d rather be treated only by religious nurses? And only of their, specific religion? What if some nurses, through either non-belief, alternative religions, or just a secular approach, ‘refuse’ to pray for patients, while others don’t? Isn’t it unfair to put them into that position? And presumably nobody wants to be getting into metaphysical discussions on the ward. Also, while I wouldn’t be offended if someone offered to pray for me, I might get a bit worried: why, with all this medical equipment, are you offering to pray? What’s wrong with me? It seems to me that once a nurse’s religion becomes a factor in patient care, in any way, things can surely only get tougher.

Nurses are utterly fantastic. You could not pay me to do once the things they do every day, in 12-hour shifts, for little acclaim, little money, and the occasional vile spewings of Tories. I feel bad coming within a mile of saying a nurse is doing something wrong, but surely a completely secular approach is the wisest stance, here? I’m pretty sure codes of practice dictate as much, too.

I wasn’t sure about the suspension at first. If it violates a code then fair enough, but it seemed a touch extreme. Then I saw she’d previously been reprimanded for handing out prayer cards(!), so she’s only been suspended because this is the second incident. And the BBC article has this:

“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.”

Which suggests she’s been asking multiple patients, not just the one. And then:

Mrs Petrie said: “I stopped handing out prayer cards after that but I found it more and more difficult [not to offer them]. My concern is for the person as a whole, not just their health.

“I was told not to force my faith on anyone but I could respond if patients themselves brought up the subject [of religion].”

‘The person as a whole’? That’s a bit much. I’m sure she has the best of intentions, but she’s left the realm of evidence-based healthcare at this point. You can’t be in medicine and bring in your own remedies.

I think there are valid reasons for a completely secular NHS, as well as any public sector institution. But as a non-believer I’m mildly bothered she said something so ridiculous. Daniel Dennett, when told a friend had prayed for him, said ‘thank you – did you also sacrifice a goat?’. Her comment is undoubtedly well meant, but is equivalent to ‘I will petition the soil goblins to send ephemeral bunnies of health and beauty up through the hospital concrete, and they will burrow into your soul and make you better’. And her version makes even less sense: in the case of the Christian healing deity, there’s empirical evidence intercessory prayer doesn’t work (furthermore, knowing someone’s praying for you may actually make things worse).

I don’t care what nurses privately believe, but if I’m in a hospital, surrounded by doctors and nurses who’ve gone through years of training in real ways to make people better, and millions of pounds worth of medical equipment designed to make people better, backed by thousands of research scientists who’ve devoted their lives to making people better, I don’t want to hear ‘do you want me to ask my sky fairy to help you out?’. It may be well intentioned, but it demeans the medical establishment, and it makes me sad.