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ETHICS IN MEDICINE   University of Washington School of Medicine
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Cross-cultural Issues and Diverse Belief

Douglas S. Diekema MD, MPH


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Case 1

Case 2

Case 3

Patients may bring cultural, religious and ideological beliefs with them as they enter into a relationship with the physician. Occasionally, these beliefs may challenge or conflict with what the physician believes to be good medical care. Understanding and respecting the beliefs of the patient represents an important part of establishing and maintaining a therapeutic relationship. While the principle of respect for autonomy requires that a physician respect the medical decisions of a competent adult patient, in cases of surrogate decision-making, the physician has an independent duty to guard the interests of the patient.

Why is it important to respect what appear to me to be idiosyncratic beliefs?

Respecting the beliefs and values of your patient is an important part of establishing an effective therapeutic relationship. Failure to take those beliefs seriously can undermine the patient's ability to trust you as her physician. It may also encourage persons with non-mainstream cultural or religious beliefs to avoid seeking medical care when they need it.

What are some ways to discover well known sets of beliefs?

There are many groups that share common sets of beliefs. These belief systems may be based on shared religion, ethnicity, or ideology. Knowledge of these beliefs and the reasonable range of interpretation of doctrine can be very helpful in deciding if unusual beliefs should be respected. Good resources for guidance in this area include patients and family members themselves, staff members with personal knowledge or experience, hospital chaplains, social workers, and interpreters. Unusual beliefs that fall outside known belief systems should prompt more in-depth discussions to insure they are reasonable.

It is important to explore each individual's beliefs, as shared membership in a particular religious or cultural group does not necessarily entail identical belief systems.

What is my responsibility when a patient endangers her health by refusing a treatment?

Adults have a moral and legal right to make decisions about their own health care, including the right to refuse treatments that may be life-saving. The physician has a responsibility to make sure that the patient understands the possible and probable outcomes of refusing the proposed treatment. The physician should attempt to understand the basis for the patient's refusal and address those concerns and any misperceptions the patient may have. In some cases, enlisting the aid of a leader in the patient's cultural or religious community may be helpful.

Can parents refuse to provide their children with necessary medical treatment on the basis of their beliefs?

Parents have legal and moral authority to make health care decisions for their children, as long as those decisions do not pose a significant risk of serious harm to the child's health. Parents should not be permitted to deny their children medical care when that medical care is likely to prevent substantial harm or suffering. If necessary, the physician may need to pursue a court order or seek the involvement of child protective services in order to provide treatment against the wishes of the parents. Nevertheless, the physician must always take care to show respect for the family's beliefs and a willingness to discuss reasonable alternatives with the family.

What kinds of treatment can parents choose not to provide to their children?

Parents have the right to refuse medical treatments when doing so does not place the child at significant risk of substantial harm or suffering. For example, parents have the right to refuse routine immunizations for their children on religious or cultural grounds.

Can a patient demand that I provide them with a form of treatment that I am uncomfortable providing?

A physician is not morally obligated to provide treatment modalities that they do not believe offer a benefit to the patient or which may harm the patient. Physicians should also not offer treatments that they do not feel competent to provide or prescribe. However, it is important to take the patient's request seriously, consider accommodating requests that will not harm the patient or others, and attempt to formulate a plan that would be acceptable to both the physician and patient.

Top | Additional Readings | Related Websites

Case studies: Case 1 | Case 2 | Case 3

Related Discussion Topics/Links: Physician-Patient Relationship, Parental Decision Making, Termination of Life-Sustaining Treatment

Core clerkship material:Pediatrics | Rehabilitation Medicine

Professor, Pediatrics, Attending physician, Emergency Services, Pediatrics
Director of Education, Trueman Katz Center for Pediatric Bioethics at Children's Hospital
Children's Hospital and Medical Center

Adjunct faculty, Bioethics & Humanities
University of Washington School of Medicine

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Last date modified: November 14, 2013