St George’s introduces new ‘Religion & Belief Code of Practice’

[box]Kea Orver reports on St George’s new guidelines for student bodies and NHS trusts[/box]

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There is great conflict between maintaining healthcare standards and religious practise when working in the medical profession. Whether this relates to differing health behaviours or medical ethics, the friction between religion and medicine is a well publicised debate.

However at St George’s University, a new ‘Religion and Belief Code of Practice: Guidance’ has recently been published to help address the numerous enquiries I receive as the Equality and Diversity Manager at St. George’s University.

Over a hundred enquiries made each year are related solely to religion and belief. It soon became apparent that both students and staff needed new, open guidance covering the most recurring concerns: religious dress, food and behaviour on campus.

In order to begin this task, I decided to learn all I could about the issues from our current staff and students. The university has a strong Interfaith Forum which is made up of staff and students from different faith backgrounds. We were especially interested in consulting with the student members of the Forum to hear of any difficulties they might have experienced in reconciling their religious observance with the demands of healthcare practice. As a result, presidents of each student faith group were also asked to seek advice from their own members to help us improve our policy.

This research revealed that some new students were unaware of the reasons behind DH’s so called ‘bare below the elbow ‘policy. Additionally many students did not know that decisions related to preventing clinical infection are made locally by each NHS Trust.
At the same time, we talked to academic teaching staff and clinicians to try and understand this issue from their perspective. We found that as teachers of tomorrow’s healthcare professionals they wished to impress upon their students the need to always strive for the highest standards of healthcare practice.

However we also found that some staff were unaware of the range of clothing and practices related to religious belief. Some were confused about what accommodations were available and whether or not it might be appropriate to offer these in lectures, in seminars or during direct patient care activity and if so, when. Such lack of clarity could lead to students who had made similar requests being treated inequitably.

However, we soon discovered that the gulf between meeting healthcare demands and complying with religious observance was perhaps not as great as first thought. If all parties are well informed about what reasonable accommodations may be possible and continue to understand that patient safety remains of paramount importance, then sometimes it is fairly easy to make reasonable accommodations.

Once students, staff and placement providers were all happy with the guidance we were happy to share it as widely as possible.
St Georges has an excellent record in widening participation and so we already attract students from many different backgrounds. Unlike many dress codes this new document is illustrated with photos of our students wearing religious dress. We believe that showing images of our students engaged in healthcare helps ‘normalise’ diversity.

There has been an extremely enthusiastic response to this new guidance. The ‘Medical Schools Council’ which represents the interests of UK medical schools, and the ‘Council of Deans of Health’ which acts as voice of the deans and the heads of the UK university faculties for nursing, midwifery and the health professions both wish to share this guidance directly with all their members. The Department of Health has described this guidance as “impressive” and asked permission to share it with any individual who raises the issue of religious dress and healthcare in the future. NHS Employers described the guidance as “really excellent” and have also published this guidance on their website.

We hope that both other universities and NHS Trusts may learn from our good practice.


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