BMA meeting: Doctors vote against demanding right for doctors to pray for their patients

BMJ 2009; 339 doi: (Published 06 July 2009) Cite this as: BMJ 2009;339:b2742
  1. Deborah Cohen
  1. 1BMJ

    Representatives at the BMA’s annual conference in Liverpool have voted against a proposal to seek protection from disciplinary action for any health workers who offer to pray for their patients.

    Earlier this year the Department of Health issued guidance warning about proselytising, saying that discussing religion could be interpreted as an attempt to convert a patient, which could be construed as a form of harassment (

    However, Bernadette Birtwhistle, an oncologist from Sheffield and a member of the Christian Medical Fellowship, proposed a motion arguing that offering to pray for a patient should not be grounds for suspension.

    She also argued that the health department’s guidance suggested that any discussion of religious views in the workplace could be regarded as harassment and grounds for disciplinary action. “This is considerably beyond the GMC guidance [the General Medical Council’s Personal Beliefs and Medical Practice] and is potentially curtailing the freedom of speech which is a highly valued part of British society,” she said.

    Last year Caroline Petrie, a district nurse, was suspended by North Somerset NHS Trust after offering to pray for a patient. She was reinstated a few months later.

    Dr Birtwhistle said, “Nothing in the GMC guidance . . . precludes doctors from praying with their patients. It says that the focus must be on a patient’s needs and wishes.”

    But Ayesha Rahim, a psychiatrist in Salford, argued that although doctors must treat patients holistically, it does not mean that they had to provide spiritual support themselves.

    She told the conference: “When a patient tells me that they have difficulties in applying for benefits they’re entitled to, do I make the application myself? No. I am not trained to do so. I call the appropriate colleague. When a patient tells me they have nowhere to live, do I apply for their housing myself? No. I am not trained to do so. I call the appropriate colleague. When a patient tells me that they are struggling spiritually, do I offer to pray? No. I am not trained to do so.

    “There may be some of you in this room who feel you can offer specific spiritual advice. But let me ask you this: can you confidently say that you can offer this spiritual advice to all of your patients, regardless of their religious persuasion, including those with none? Let’s keep religion and medicine separate.”

    John Chisholm, former chairman of the BMA’s General Practitioners Committee, said that doctors have the right to their beliefs but no right to impose them on patients. It is appropriate only if it is initiated by their patients and not the other way around, he said.

    However, Dr Birtwhistle said that historically the NHS was founded on Christian principles. She said that arguing against the motion was arguing against equal rights for people who were religious, because if religious people were forbidden from offering to pray for their patients, the only people who would have the right to discuss their personal philosophy would be atheists.


    Cite this as: BMJ 2009;339:b2742

    View Abstract

    Sign in

    Log in through your institution

    Free trial

    Register for a free trial to to receive unlimited access to all content on for 14 days.
    Sign up for a free trial