The Acceptable Face of (Mis) Treating Muslims in the Private Sphere
The following article was recently published in The Muslim News
Are Muslims too sensitive to the ill-treatment they receive in the public sphere, or are the subtleties of prejudice so blurred that we can no longer pinpoint and address where the problems lie?
A close family friend in need of some medical care, attended a private consultation with his modestly dressed hijab wearing wife. The Consultant shook hands with the patient and turned to the lady who politely declined to shake his hand, explaining that her religious beliefs did not permit her to do so. As is customary for many Muslims, she placed her right hand on her chest and bowed slightly in a courteous manner informing him that many Muslims consider that it is not permitted to touch a person of the opposite gender, and that her action was not personal nor intended to cause offence. The Consultant said he was deeply offended. He asked them to leave. He refused to treat the patient.
My friend and his wife were gobsmacked. They left the hospital in a daze, not knowing what to do next since this was the same Consultant who was treating him on the NHS. The patient had been recently admitted to the local NHS hospital. He wanted to get some investigations done quickly and so he chose to be treated privately. To make sure he got continuity of care, he decided to go with the same consultant.
Cut to comedy sequence from Carry on with Public-Private healthcare.
First up, the Patient Advice and Liaison Service (PALS): “Raise in confidence any issues and comments that you have about the care and service you receive from staff”. Apologetic, but of little practical use with regards to how to proceed. Since the NHS appointed Consultant was seeing the patient privately – albeit on NHS premises- this was not any of their business and they had no jurisdiction over his behaviour was the official position from our pals at PALS.
But who would go back to the NHS for follow up treatment with a Consultant who had thrown you out in a private capacity and treated your wife in this way?
Next up, a phone call to the private healthcare firm who sanctioned the consultation. Could they remove a doctor from their list who showed this kind of behaviour? Nope, that’s more than our jobs’ worth, it’s not up to us.
Moving on, the local private trust was slightly more helpful. They met formally with the Consultant who did not deny that he refused to treat the patient because of the patient’s wife’s beliefs. In fact, he argued that he was within his rights to be insulted and to not treat a patient since it was a private patient.
The official at the private trust communicated this back to the patient informally (they are still waiting for an official letter documenting the situation). He was sympathetic, but said that he had never genuinely come across such an incident before.
And in this ghastly mess, this seems to be the only glimmer of sincerity – the unearthing of a situation where someone can be treated outside the bounds of moral behaviour in the private domain, but continue happily in the same profession funded by the public purse.
This incident is a small highlight of the wider debate taking place about what kinds of discrimination are acceptable. What if the consultant had refused to treat the patient because his wife had been black? Would he have been then considered within his rights to refuse? Is this an appropriate analogy to draw?
The worry is that such behaviour extends itself into public care where a Consultant refuses to treat a hijab wearing woman on the NHS. And if such an extreme was not permitted, his service provision to the patient might be impaired or even an impediment to the Muslim woman being cared for.
The complexity in this case stems from blurring of public and private and what is acceptable behaviour in each domain. What if the patient’s wife had attended the NHS appointment and the whole scenario had been replayed there? Would there have been any further recourse for the patient then? Can a professional behave in two totally different ways in the public and private domain? Does a doctor have the right to refuse treatment? How should a public employee be disciplined for showing prejudice in treatment? How should this scenario be prevented in future?
Those who say that Muslims are too sensitive to such matters will point out that this is one incident with one doctor. But is it happening in other places, with other practitioners? Fuel to the fire is that this hospital is located in an area with a high ethnic minority population of which Muslims are a substantial component. But one of the markers of this case is that the doctor’s behaviour is seemingly condoned because it was conducted in the private commercial domain. Surely all service providers must be subject to codes of behaviour in treating their customers, and healthcare should be a flagship for good ethical practice.
It is shocking that a doctor – a public servant – can refuse to
treat someone on the basis of their wife’s religious beliefs.
My friend and his wife are in a good position – the treatment that he was looking for was not a matter with a fateful outcome, they have good contacts to help them through this messy maze. But for Muslim women in more desperate and less aware circumstances such issues could well be a matter of life or death.