Q & A With Lynn Stoller and Eliza Blanchard - "The December Dilemma"

September 25, 2014

The Institute, in collaboration with AHA SmartMarket, recently interviewed Lynn Stoller and Eliza Blanchard from the Tanenbaum Center for Religious Understanding on their upcoming Diversity Dialogue, “The December Dilemma: Managing the Challenges of the Holiday Season,” on Tuesday, Sept. 30 at 12:00 p.m. CT.  


In this email interview, Stoller and Blanchard discuss how religion can affect health care decisions, the challenges of granting vacation requests during the holidays, and how to manage the obvious and subtle conflicts between religion and health care.

Click here to discuss this interview on AHA SmartMarket, an innovative social network for health care professionals (Note: You will need to create a profile in order to view the discussion).  

To register for this Diversity Dialogue, click here.


Q: Why is this webinar titled “The December Dilemma?”
A: December is a time of year when many well-known religious holidays collide. This can lead to challenges in the health care workplace around granting time off requests, choosing appropriate holiday decorations, or planning holiday celebrations. 
Many human resources and diversity & inclusion professionals see this as a "dilemma" because they don’t have the resources or training to address the challenges that this time of year can pose. 
Even though December can seem like it causes many dilemmas, we hope that this webinar will help participants see the opportunities that holidays provide for leveraging internal religious diversity and creating respectful and inclusive environments for both employees and patients.
Q: In your experience, what is one common challenge hospitals face when addressing the religious needs of their patients? Employees?
A: Religion often influences the health care decisions that patients make in a variety of areas — for example:

  • Modesty (a patient may be uncomfortable wearing a hospital gown that she considers overly revealing given her religiously motivated modesty concerns),
  • Reproductive health (a patient may decline to use contraception for religious reasons)
  • End-of-life care (a family’s religious values help them determine when it’s appropriate to withdraw care from a brain dead family member).

This means sometimes a patient’s priorities are influenced by their religious beliefs and therefore differ from the health care provider’s or institution’s priorities. If providers don’t ask patients about their religious beliefs, then often patients don’t feel comfortable bringing up the subject. 

Q: What kind of problems could arise? 
A: The result can be situations where neither the provider nor the patient knows what the other one is thinking, what their priorities are or what moral, cultural or religious frameworks are being used to make medical decisions. 
When this basic understanding isn't there, it becomes difficult for the provider to respond to patient priorities in ways that lead to truly patient-centered care.
We also find that one of the major challenges hospitals (and other workplaces) face with employees has to do with scheduling and time-off requests. This can happen during December or throughout the year, since religious holidays and Sabbath observances fall throughout the year, not just in December.
Managing time off requests can be a challenge for any type of workplace, but especially for health care workplaces where the work is often 24/7 and time off requests, even for religious observance, are therefore more difficult to grant.
Q: Can you provide an example of how religious beliefs may cause conflict between the patient and their health care provider?
A: Often when people think about conflicts between religion and health care, they jump to the example of Jehovah’s Witnesses refusing blood transfusions because of their religious beliefs. 
Sometimes conflicts between religion and health care are that extreme (in that they involve life and death decisions) — but religious conflicts can also occur in much more subtle ways, such as a diabetic patient choosing to engage in a religiously motivated fast or a patient choosing to schedule a procedure so it does not conflict with a religious holiday. 
It is important for health care institutions and individual providers to be aware of and manage both the obvious and the subtle conflicts that may emerge between religion and health care.
Q: Do you think the subject of this webinar is limited to health care organizations with highly diverse patients and/or staff?  If so, why or why not?
A: Religious diversity differs from other types of diversity in that it is not a majority-minority issue. Any employee or patient — whether they identify as belonging to a Christian denomination, a minority religion, or are atheist, agnostic, or spiritual and unaffiliated — may need an accommodation for their religious or non-religious tradition, or face discrimination based on that tradition. 
For example, Christians make up a majority of the United States, but Tanenbaum’s 2013 Survey of American Workers and Religion found that Christians still face challenges around taking time off to observe their religious holidays.
In addition, different employees and patients will have different opinions on how holidays should be acknowledged — for example, some may prefer a non-denominational greeting like "Season’s Greetings," and other may prefer a religion-specific greeting like "Merry Christmas." 
Even within the same religious tradition, there is tremendous diversity among how individuals believe and practice. 
For these reasons, the subject of this webinar will be relevant to all health care organizations because all health care organizations will have religious diversity of some type represented among its patients and staff — even if it’s diversity within one religious tradition — and may therefore see challenges emerge around the holidays.
Q: What would you like participants to take away from this upcoming webinar?
A: We would like webinar participants to understand what challenges exist around the holiday season and to have concrete next steps and better practices that they can use to help proactively and successfully manage these challenges. 
We would also like participants to understand that managing religious diversity & inclusion shouldn't happen only in December — it is something that needs to take place throughout the year so that employees and patients of all religions and none are respected and included.





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