Where health-care draws the line on meeting multicultural needs

By Tom Blackwell
July 3, 2015 | National Post

As the adolescent girl underwent gynecological surgery at a western Canadian hospital, a doctor stood by to perform an unusual function.

The physician was there, according to a source familiar with the incident, to sign a certificate verifying she remained a virgin — and was still marriageable in her immigrant community.

It was a stark example of an increasing preoccupation for Canada’s health-care system: accommodating the sometimes unorthodox needs of ethnic and religious minorities in an ever-more multicultural society.

Hospitals grapple with requests for doctors of a specific sex or race; sometimes they disconnect fire alarms to allow sweetgrass burning, prolong life support for religious reasons and host clinics to treat fasting diabetics at Ramadan.

The gestures stem not only from the country’s growing diversity, but a generally more patient-focused system — and a recognition that treating solely physical ailments is not always enough.

“If we don’t engage in the (cultural) discussion, we won’t fully understand their health needs and they won’t get met,” says Marie Serdynska, who heads a pioneering project in the field, the Montreal Children’s Hospital’s socio-cultural consultation and interpretation services.

“So ultimately they will get sicker and be a greater cost the health-care system.”

But with the topic being featured at national pediatric and bioethics conferences recently, medical professionals are debating a difficult question: is there is a point at which catering to cultural preferences crosses a moral — or even legal — line?

. . .

In London, Ont., St. Joseph’s Health Care runs a special clinic during Ramadan to help the city’s estimated 3,000 diabetic Muslims.

Muslim needs, including heightened privacy for female hospital patients instead of the usual, unannounced arrival of staff at the bedside, were once given short shrift, says Khadija Haffajee, spokeswoman for the National Council of Canadian Muslims.

But the system has generally made great strides, says Haffajee, who has addressed classes of nursing students on her faith’s practices.

“It’s about reasonable accommodation and understanding,” she says. “When people are ill, you’re dealing with very vulnerable people, so empathy goes a long way.”

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