Martin Beckford, Telegraph (London), January 11, 2009
The rules on dealing with religious staff and patients state that all hospitals must be equipped with prayer rooms big enough to accommodate 20 worshippers and storage for religious items, as well as separate fridges for halal, kosher or vegetarian food and burqa-style gowns.
Doctors and nurses must also learn about “the concept of sin”, demonic possession and exorcism, and the belief systems of Paganism and Shamanism, so they can deal with the religious needs of patients.
However the new handbook also tells staff that they must respect atheists, and warns that the devoutly religious who try to preach to colleagues or patients about the evils of homosexuality or single mothers could be disciplined for “harassment”.
And it advises employers to tell medical students and job candidates as soon as possible what religious practices–such as wearing jewellery or long-sleeved coats–are unacceptable in hospitals and clinics so that they cannot later refuse to abide by them.
The 66-page document, called Religion or Belief: a Practical Guide for the NHS, has been written to comply with new equality and human rights laws that entitle everyone to freedom from discrimination on grounds of their faith.
It is intended to prevent the health service being dragged into costly legal disputes by members of staff or patients who feel their beliefs have not been respected.
Earlier this year a Muslim woman lost her job as a hospital radiographer after she refused to comply with hygiene rules that required her to bare her arms below the elbow.
And a dentist was found guilty of misconduct after he told a female patient he could not treat her unless she wore “appropriate Islamic dress”.
Surinder Sharma, national director for equality and human rights at the Department of Health, said in a foreword to the report: “It is essential that we strive to take account of everyone’s needs in the design and delivery of services–including people of different religions or beliefs and those with none.”
The guidebook says religious health workers must be allowed time to pray but that this should not mean unbelievers have to work extra to cover for them, or that patients’ care is jeopardised.
It says all NHS organisations should display a “multi-faith calendar” so everyone knows when religious holidays are taking place.
And it warns that staff training or bonding events may alienate followers of some faiths if they take place at weekends or in pubs.
The guide goes on: “Those organising such activities as lottery pools, sweepstakes and so on should be aware that people from certain religions (for instance Muslims) may not wish to take part, and should be mindful of this when collecting and distributing monies connected to such activities.”
However it also says those applying for jobs in the NHS must be told before starting work exactly what the job will entail and what clothing or religious symbols cannot be worn, so they can decide “whether the job may conflict with their religious convictions”.
And those whose faith tells them they must “try to convert other people” must be told on their first day of training that “particular views on sexual orientation, gender and single parents . . . potentially cause great offence to other workers or patients or visitors”.
Staff must also make sure patients are not given drugs derived from alcohol or animals against their beliefs, or given sedatives when dying if they want to remain conscious to pray.
Mental health workers have to consider whether devout believers will put their illness down to a “demonic attack” or “sin”.
It concludes that all trusts should review their employment policies and work practices to ensure they are not discriminating against religious believers, and arrange awareness training for staff.