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Offering religious support could be part of providing compassionate patient care

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It is often argued the UK has entered a post-religious age. Falling church attendances and the success of books such as Richard Dawkins’ The God Delusion suggest atheism has triumphed.

Nurses know this is not true. As one respondent to our survey on the place of religion in nursing commented: ‘Even the most unbelieving often look for God at the times of great stress’.

But it is not simply this fact that means nurses must take the religious needs of their patients very seriously.

As we reported on this week, research suggests those with strong religious faith derive significant mental health benefits from praying regularly.

The research did not cover the effect of knowing that others were praying for you - but clearly we are dealing with a potentially powerful force to achieve improved patient experience.

As many as 91% of the nurses we asked could conceive of circumstances where it would be appropriate to pray ‘with or for a patient’.

Another telling finding - relevant to the fight against inequality - is that prayer appears to be most effective for
poorly educated, older people from disadvantaged backgrounds.

Given this context, it is little wonder most nurses think that North Somerset PCT overreacted by suspending a nurse who offered to pray for a patient.

Of course, nurses should never pray for a patient in their presence unless they or, where appropriate, their relatives have agreed. But what our survey appears to reveal is that many nurses believe the offer of religious support could be an important part of providing compassionate care.

For example, good nurses spot patients who need help eating, pain control or even a good chat - without having to be asked by those who are scared and vulnerable. Are religious needs a different matter?

That question speaks to the key finding from our survey - nurses believe there is insufficient guidance on the role that religion plays in good nursing.

The new Department of Health guidance will not have had time to filter through to many nurses - but even so it would not appear to deal adequately with the issues raised by the North Somerset case.

This delicate, but important topic, requires further attention.

Alastair McLellan editor, Nursing Times

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