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Wednesday, August 22, 2007

Health Care & Religion

Earlier this week I had an interesting discussion with Dr. Cayla Teal from the Baylor College of Medicine. She is studying issues of how health care quality is effected by racial and ethnic issues. In the process, she discovered that issues of religion also played a role. Now she is putting together some survey questions designed to measure people's preferences and attitudes about their health care service as it pertains to all of these issues.

She had contacted me, as president of the local Humanist organization here in Houston, in order to get perspectives and input from Humanist and nontheist points of view. This was specifically in regards to the sections of the survey dealing with religion.

I wasn't being asked the questions themselves (I'm not part of the survey). Rather, I was being asked for input on how the questions could be formulated so as to be of most relevance to the widest religious variety of people, and how they might better gather the specific information being sought without misunderstanding.

We talked about how different groups use terms like 'religious', 'spiritual', 'God' and so on. We also talked about instances where one could answer a question in a way that was technically correct, but gives an opposite impression from the reality of the subject's position - because of unfounded assumptions inherent in the wording of the question. This often took the form of bias in the questions that assumed the subject was some form of theist; a common bias that atheists probably notice more than theists.

Another interesting issue was how differences in people's conception of 'faith healing' could result in meaningless answers to the questions. For example, some people might say that faith helps one get better because they think something supernatural is going on, while others may say the same thing, but because they believe it is a placebo or other biological process effected by a hopeful and positive psychological attitude. These differences can make a huge difference in what a person actually believes, even though they might answer questions in the same manner, if they are not carefully worded.

Similar issues arose because different subjects have different ideas about how God works, how the 'idea' of God works, and what role (if any) such a deity plays in our lives. Do we pray for the strength to accept whatever is God's will for our heath, or do we pray for God to actively change our health? These sorts of questions went beyond what would be relevant to a naturalist such as myself, but they are important things to consider when phrasing questions about faith and health.

I can't tell you what the questions are, as I promised Dr. Teal I would not. But they were generally about discovering what patient's desires were for their health care provider, given their religious views (or lack thereof). However, Dr. Teal has told me she will inform me once the study has been completed and published, which I look forward to seeing - and will post some information on here.

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