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.

7 Comments

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  • Symbol

    April 29, 2006

    I suggest that a complaint should be lodged with the GMC that this doctor’s practice violates GMC’s Good Medical Practice Guide article 5 which states as follows:
    “The investigations or treatment you provide or arrange must be
    based on your clinical judgement of patients’ needs and the likely
    effectiveness of the treatment.You must not allow your views about
    patients’ lifestyle, culture, beliefs, race, colour, gender, sexuality, disability, age, or social or economic status, to prejudice the treatment you provide or arrange.You must not refuse or delay treatment because you believe that patients’ actions have contributed to their condition.”

  • DrMaxtor

    May 13, 2006

    This is unprofessionalism and immaturity, pure and simple.

  • JD

    May 14, 2006

    One wonders how the doctor would have reacted if the patient were Thai. They don’t normally shake hands either, performing the “wai” instead.

  • sv

    June 4, 2006

    Hmm.. difficult one. In practice I get to see the other side where “modern muslims” arent keen to see you as you wear hijab, or to discuss their alcohol intake or promiscuity for example.

    I would suggest that if paying they find a muslim dr privately

  • Anonymous

    May 12, 2008

    I am curious about such incidents to be honest. I work for the public sector. I find that the non muslim people I work with bend over backwards to accomodate people to the point of extreme. Somebody had told a male muslim man client that my colleague was Gay so the man refused to see him my colleague acquiesced and asked someone else to see him instead. In another more recent incident a muslim religious man came in to talk to us about muslim ethics etc. Becasue we work for the public sector the local authority wanted to make sure we were culturally sensitve to our clients needs. The man insisted as a mark of respect we wear head coverings. My female non muslim collegues quickly covered their heads to show their sensitivity. I did not stay for the presentation. I found it hypocritical to the extreme as a muslim to see this double standard. Increasingly I find my voice being focefully closed shut and my views stiffled and my beliefs belittled.

  • Anonymous

    October 20, 2008

    Moan all you like, i have been to Afghanistan and i had to abide by their values, i couldnt eat or drink in public during rammadan. if i met a tribal leader i had to accept his offer of a drink, sit at his table and remove footware before i entered his land. I was in their country and i accepted his beliefs so as not to offend him and his people. I was in a Muslim country and had no problems abiding by their culture. So why do people of other faiths feel that when in a Christian country they dont have to abide by what we feel is part of our culture, ie shaking a hand. DOUBLE STANDARDS AS USUAL. We will never fully intergrate unless people on both sides except each others cultures…. If i moved to a Muslim country i would have to live by muslim law and muslim culture. What would happen if i said to a Muslim in their country that i am not muslim and i will eat/drink when i feel during rammadan or refused to abide by something they felt i should be doing. mmmmmmm gets you thinking.

    RELIGION IS THE REAL EVIL IN THE WORLD. HOW MANY WARS HAVE BEEN THOUGHT OVER RELIGION. Lets all chill out renounce our faiths and live as one.

  • Barbelodabica

    December 9, 2008

    Let’s make a clear distinction: one thing is to respect the Muslim woman’s right not to shake hands, as long as she shows a sign of respect that it is not meant as an insult (which she did) and has an alternative form of greeting. Another thing is to cave in to Muslim demands to change behaviour, as in non-Muslim women wearing scarves in a Muslim’s presence, or gay men not being excluded from professional dealings with a Muslim. Respect runs both ways, and I don’t think the author of this blog meant anything else than that.