I was visiting NYU Medical Center earlier today for some lab tests my doctor had ordered for me a while back. During the intake, among other administrative questions, they asked me my religion. I was so taken aback by this question that, seeing the cross hanging on the neck of the man who was admitting me, I angrily blurted out “Atheist.” What I should have said was “None of your god damned business.” He backpedaled a little after my outburst with “You don’t have to answer this question, we just ask it…” and his voice trailed off.
So picking up the ball I asked pointedly, “Why, exactly, do you ask it?”
He replied with “They ask us to ask it, this is part of the new procedure.”
I told him that while I understood it was part of a procedure, I didn’t understand why they were asking it. For what purpose. He told me he didn’t know, and went to ask someone else, who also couldn’t tell me why they ask for this info, only that they were told to and we didn’t have to answer if we didn’t feel like it. That’s great I thought, except that now everyone in the room had plainly heard me state that I am a godless commie or whatever, and I wished I had at least said Buddhist, even though that is not a religion (any more than Atheism is, but that is how our culture views such things, alas).
I then started thinking about all the terrible ways in which this information could be used, and tried to imagine any legitimate reasons for having it. A quick post about it on facebook garnered the opinions that it could be used to either avoid lawsuits by not performing certain procedures (such as blood transfusions for Jehovah’s Witnesses) or to aid in comforting the dying by calling their spiritual leader or something at the appropriate moment. I call bullshit on both of these. Far better to just ask people to list any procedures they don’t want, and who they want to be present should they be in the process of kicking it.
Far more ominous are the scenarios I could imagine that could disturb the impartial care that any patient should expect. Imagine a strong-believing Christian nurse needing to draw blood from a patient whose chart reads “Atheist” or “Muslim” (or “Satanist” for that matter). Or who perhaps feels it is ok to ignore the call of some and hurry to the call of others in the ward with whom she has more in common. Plug in any non matching beliefs between providers and patients and you have a recipe for all kinds of abuse, both subtle and egregious. These considerations should be completely off the record. By not even having such information, it is much less likely to be abused. I am not sure who hatched this plan to ask such information of patients, but it is certainly ill-advised and creepy, whether or not one declines to state.