"What's your religion?" Why do they care?
January 9, 2008 7:13 AM   Subscribe

Why did the emergency-room clerk want to know my wife's religion?

I took my wife to the emergency room last night, because she was running a 104 fever. Turns out, she has pneumonia (and now has antibiotics and will be fine, I'm sure).

While there, we had to talk to a clerk about the financial end of things. It was all pretty straightforward. "What's sort of insurance do you carry? Who is your employer? Etc."

Then (clearly reading from the same checklist of questions), she asked, "What is your religion?" My wife just stared at her for a second and asked her to repeat the question. It threw me, too. It seemed like a non-sequitur. I've certainly never been asked my religion before, during any sort of formal, financial Q-and-A session.

We're atheists, so after a bit of an uncomfortable pause, my wife said, "non applicable." (I know there's nothing to be ashamed of, but in a big public space, with tons of people around, our atheism isn't something we tend to bring up.)

If it helps, this was New York Methodist Hospital in Brooklyn. Sure, "Methodist," but like most hospitals that are somehow associated with religious organizations, the experience of being there was -- other than this incident -- was totally secular.

Why did the the finance clerk want to know my wife's religion?
posted by grumblebee to Religion & Philosophy (30 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
Some people do not want blood transfusions or other services based on religion (Jehovah's Witnesses are one, I think).
posted by Medieval Maven at 7:14 AM on January 9, 2008

Probably because they could then provide you with religious services, if applicable. For instance, I know people who are Catholic who volunteer to bring communion to people who are in hospitals. And, again if you're Catholic, a priest may visit to provide the sacrament of the anointing of the sick. I'm sure they just want to send the right people your way.
posted by dpx.mfx at 7:16 AM on January 9, 2008 [1 favorite]

I think it's a pretty standard question, at least, I've always been asked it when checking into a hospital. I always thought it was so they could provide religious services if you wanted them.
posted by curie at 7:16 AM on January 9, 2008

I worked in a hospital ER through college. Good times. My hospital, which was a for profit, non-religious affiliated hospital asked this question too. I actually never asked it, because most people's reaction was 'how is this relevant.'

Anyway, they ask it because in the event of your death, etc. they want to know what type of arrangements and/or customs to follow.
posted by uaudio at 7:17 AM on January 9, 2008

Like others have said, it's a courtesy from the hospital in the event of death, blood, or dietary restrictions.
posted by unixrat at 7:20 AM on January 9, 2008 [1 favorite]

I think it's just to stick on her record. In the very unlikely event that she died at the hospital, they'd have called a priest to administer last rites if she'd said she was Catholic. Also, if something gets dire, they'll call a hospital chaplain, and it's useful for the chaplain to know the person's religion. I spent a lot of time in the hospital as a teenager, and I talked to the chaplain about how she did her job. She said that regardless of what a patient said was his or her religion, she didn't bring up God unless the patient and/or relative did. But I bet if someone did bring it up, it would be helpful to know what flavor of God they were talking about.
posted by craichead at 7:20 AM on January 9, 2008

If your wife succumbed to her illness or came close to it, the hospital could possibly summon a representative of her faith to carry out the ceremonies relating to the event. For example, Catholic Last Rites.

(In those situations, the urge to say something really off-the-wall and/or subversive tempts me, but then I realize that the person taking the information doesn't want or need the distraction, nor do I want to delay the checking-in process.)
posted by bonobo at 7:23 AM on January 9, 2008

It's a totally standard question which, for most people, makes total sense and you don't have to answer it if you lack a religion. When I was in a car accident they asked my family what religion I was and they said something to the effect of "nothing really, maybe Jewish" and I had a priest by my bedside when I woke up anyhow (and she was actually oddly comforting and did not talk to mr about religion at all, I think she was also sort of trying to figure out if I was suicidal). For some religious people especially if they think they are going to die, having a services/confessional option available is very very important.
posted by jessamyn at 7:35 AM on January 9, 2008

When my daughter died they asked me how they should pray for her soul, to which I responded that I felt the question was incredibly inappropriate (although with much less tact than that). It short circuited them asking me anything else, including pertinent information like insurance.

I imagine that for some/many/most people it would have been comforting. For me it made a an awful day just a little bit worse.
posted by togdon at 7:46 AM on January 9, 2008

nthing totally standard. The only reason they want to know is if something Really Bad happens. So the appropriate answer is whatever religious rites you'd want performed (if any) if Something Really Bad happens. They don't give a rat's ass where/if you go to church/temple/etc on a weekly basis. I bet you $100 the clerk wasn't even Methodist.
posted by desjardins at 7:47 AM on January 9, 2008

Indeed, it's for all the reasons mentioned above (I always figured it was mainly for if you're going to die while you're there), but I've seen it used for medical reasons too. I went to the ER a few years ago with appendicitis, and my listing "Jewish" on the form prompted the diagnosing doctor to consider other possibilities, like Crohn's Disease, which has a much higher rate of incidence among Jews of Eastern European origin.
posted by Partial Law at 7:48 AM on January 9, 2008 [1 favorite]

FYI, I have 4 close relatives who work in hospitals - one in the ER.
posted by desjardins at 7:49 AM on January 9, 2008

I was asked this a few days ago in ER myself. I assumed it was in case the type of situation arose where a (religious) person might want the services of a chaplain.
posted by winston at 7:57 AM on January 9, 2008

It may seem intrusive, but it's so they can provide more complete and sensitive care to you in the event that you have particular needs or expectations due to your religion.

In a way, I can relate. When I had mono, I finally relented and went the Bellevue pediatric ER with a raging fever (you have to go to pediatric if you're under 25). I explained to the doctors that I had mono, that I was in a relationship with someone who'd had mono in the last year. They immediately started asking me questions about my sexual orientation and sexual activity, and I realized that they were trying to figure out if I had HIV instead (the early symptoms are very similar). Through my fever haze, their questions seemed designed to shame or scare me, and I won't deny that I still feel their care of me was dramatically less adequate and responsive after my answers to those questions. Despite this, I can admit now that however poor their bedside manner was, it was important for them to ask.

The point of this story is that in a hospital, there is no such thing as a personal question. The details of your personal life are relevant, for reasons you may not understand, and while abuses do occur, it's still part of being a good patient to suspend your defensiveness and try to help the helpers help you, as much as possible.
posted by hermitosis at 7:57 AM on January 9, 2008 [6 favorites]

What everyone else said that it's in case Something Bad happens. Like desjardins, I have relatives working in hospitals and wondered the same question a while back and got the same responses.
posted by jmd82 at 8:04 AM on January 9, 2008

Also, keep in mind that a busy ER will see dozens of people every day. The clerk will not remember you tomorrow as "that atheist couple" or whatever your flavor is.
posted by desjardins at 8:08 AM on January 9, 2008

Wouldn't HIPAA come into play...somehow?

The reason I bring that up is that our church (Catholic) used to list in weekly bulletins who was sick where. Starting a year or two ago, the bulletins started basically saying, "Due to health privacy issues, we are no longer being told by area hospitals if you are admitted - please let the church office know..." Maybe that's just for telling outside religious institutions your details, but anyone hospital-affiliated was A-OK to know your faith, beliefs, practices, and turn-ons and turn-offs.
posted by fijiwriter at 8:10 AM on January 9, 2008

'nthing what everyone else has said about blood transfusions, sensitivities, and preparations. It's simply a way to respect patient rights.
posted by samsara at 8:17 AM on January 9, 2008

(and don't feel bad, I answered pastafarian the last time I was asked)
posted by samsara at 8:18 AM on January 9, 2008 [2 favorites]

The point of this story is that in a hospital, there is no such thing as a personal question. The details of your personal life are relevant, for reasons you may not understand, and while abuses do occur, it's still part of being a good patient to suspend your defensiveness and try to help the helpers help you, as much as possible.

This is a very good point.
posted by mmascolino at 8:18 AM on January 9, 2008

Most hospitals I've worked at have had chaplains on duty; they visit the patients to provide comfort. In one hospital they were called the "Spiritual Care" department, which may not be such a bad idea after all.

All kinds of crazy things happen in hospitals, including death and a great deal of suffering. Religious people turn to their religion to help deal with these things and the hospital staff generally wants to help this process or at least not obstruct it.
posted by ikkyu2 at 8:23 AM on January 9, 2008

The only reason they want to know is if something Really Bad happens

Not only that, but for the volunteer counselors (priests, rabbis, ministers) to be able to vector themselves efficiently, I would think.
posted by panamax at 8:27 AM on January 9, 2008

As an RN at a busy metro hospital, I have to ask this question several times a day. It's all in how you phrase it. My choice is - "Do you have any religous or spiritual preferences?", they can say yes (inviting further inquiry) or no. And yes, when someone codes and/or dies this can be essential info - technically the spiritual care folks serve more as consoling facilitators than chaplains but, work in healthcare long enough and you discover that 50% of the people involved are complete morons (nurses, doctors, et al.).
posted by rotifer at 9:17 AM on January 9, 2008 [1 favorite]

probably in case things suddenly go terribly wrong, they can round up an appropriate chaplain. it was a funny way of asking, but not unreasonable, given the setting.
posted by thinkingwoman at 10:53 AM on January 9, 2008

I completely understand why your wife was weirded out, but it's actually a good question to ask. Like Ikkyu2 says, many hospitals offer spiritual care. It's a licensed profession (they are trained counselors with Masters degreees), so you don't have to worry about some preditory nutcase trying to save your soul when you're sick, lonely and scared. Ours are absolutely great.

At my Catholic hospital these people don't necessarily talk about religion, and they are incredibly concerned that nobody at the hospital assumes our patients and staff are Catholic. Sometimes they just help people digest medical information and make sure they aren't isolated or lonely. They will offer their services to an athiest (believe me, I've asked), but they want to know how you want to be approached. Had your wife been distressed and withdrawn, a spiritual care person would have offered his or her services without pushing the G word or the J word.
posted by gesamtkunstwerk at 11:00 AM on January 9, 2008

I always lie and say Lutheran because I'm a Quaker, and there ain't no such thing as a Quaker minister. I don't know how to cross myself so a Catholic would know I wasn't one in a minute.

I would suggest lying so that someone will come talk to you on your deathbed. In your case, I would say I was a Unitarian.
posted by sondrialiac at 11:25 AM on January 9, 2008

the couple of times i've gone to the er, they ask this as well. i believe it is so that if things take a turn for the worse, they can get a religious person there to talk to me.

i always just tell them "none".
posted by misanthropicsarah at 11:33 AM on January 9, 2008

Sometimes they just help people digest medical information and make sure they aren't isolated or lonely.

Exactly. Example: when I was in for surgery a few years back, the counsellor they sent me was a friendly, tactful nun. She already knew I wasn't Catholic; that didn't even arise. She stayed just long enough to ascertain that I was neither sad, confused, isolated, nor fearful. I'm confident she'd have done a good job of helping if I had been. As it was, she hung out and chatted for a few minutes -- not inane stuff, she was clearly alert, intelligent, and sensitive -- and then we shook hands and she got on with the rest of her day. It was nice.
posted by tangerine at 1:17 PM on January 9, 2008

I think it may just be statistical. I've been asked that when I've gone to the ER here in Brooklyn every time. I just say "none".
posted by cmgonzalez at 1:20 PM on January 9, 2008

I was a hospital chaplain when I was in seminary twelve years ago. Each day, I would go into the large university medical center and would be given a printout of the patients on my unit, which was family medicine and neurology. I had a relatively quick turnover rate, due to the people in family medicine not being there very long.

The list I was given each day included the patient's name, hometown, doctor, what they were in for, how long they had been there, and their religion. From time to time, I had patients who listed their religion as "atheist."

The program I was in had some very strict rules on proselytizing. In fact, if we found copies of The Watchtower or religious tracts lying around the hospital, we were told to remove and dispose of them. We were trained that we were there to provide comfort and care, but not convert.

So when I saw I had a patient who was an atheist, I went in his room, and introduced myself, like I would for anyone. I made sure he was receiving good care (sometimes we were patient advocates), we shot the breeze about the weather or sports or something and I left.

So for what it's worth, if you are religious and you tell them, it makes it easier for the hospital to provide you with the religious services you desire. If you are not religious, it make it easier to respect your wishes and leave you alone.
posted by 4ster at 7:38 AM on January 10, 2008

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