Religion, spirituality and the NHS


14 / 5 / 2014 9.12am

Imagine yourself in a hospital bed for a moment.

Now let me ask you, what is important to you? It might be your family, or your dog, or a number of other things. And now if I ask you to whittle that list down to just one: Think!, what would it be?

I ask you this because for some patients and staff, it may well be a religious practice which represents a huge feature of their life. So for a particular Christian patient, it might be a visit from the priest or Chaplain; or Holy Communion, or the opportunity to attend a service of Worship. And for a Muslim it might be ceremonial food laws or ritual prayer. And these take on a supreme importance towards the end of life. So for a Roman Catholic family, it might be hugely important for final prayers or anointing with oil for the sick, which only a Roman Catholic priest can do.

Now whatever you think about religion and faith, it seems to me that if something is on a patient’s list that's important to them, then it's important for health care professionals to meet those needs.

And that’s where the problems start!

PROBLEM 1: My list above is only a small fraction of the religious practices which are important to people of faith. And it is impossible to know all of the intricate details of every faith group. Religions, even within their own groupings, have huge diversity. And I don’t know, or even pretend to know, all the details!

PROBLEM 2: My list above is littered with “MIGHTS”. So whilst one Roman Catholic patient might prize communion above all else, another might prize a day’s fishing or a photo of her grandchildren. People might self-identify as Cburch of England but not have any connection to a local church or indeed any interest. So any presumptions you have about a particular patient and their religion based on a tick box are bound to fail.

PROBLEM 3. Spirituality and religion get misunderstood and confused. So whilst most people I see in hospital do not have a circumscribed religious faith as such, they do tend believe in some higher power and welcome the chance to explore that in a time of dislocation and illness – and even to pray

But don’t worry- there is a simple resolution to all these problems.

  • It doesn’t involve a huge investment of time.
  • It doesn’t involve a certificate in religious studies (although always good to have).
  • It doesn’t involve trawling the internet to find out what to do with a patient’s particular religion in any given situation.


Ask the person about what sustains them- they will be delighted to tell you because it is important to them. You won’t cause offence; rather offence might be caused if you don’t ask!

Avoid PRESUMING you know. You don’t know until you’ve been told.

And DON’T TREAD ON EGGSHELLS: Religion is normal for many - staff and patients alike


Rev’d Dr. David Southall is Chaplaincy Team Leader at Worcestershire Acute Hospitals NHS Trust. If you want to find out more about spiritual care and compassion visit the award winning CHAPLAIN’S BLOG at You can also find David on Twitter @revdavesouthall or on @We Chaplains, the space he has created for resourcing NHS staff on aspects of spiritual care: “BECAUSE SPIRITUAL CARE IS EVERYONES BUSINESS!”

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