The Halestraps have been living and serving in Kenya since 2012. They are based at Kijabe Hospital, a large mission hospital in the Rift Valley. Pete works as a doctor in the Outpatient and Emergency departments as well as running a higher diploma programme in Emergency Medicine and Critical Care for Clinical Officers, and a postgraduate General Practice training programme for doctors.
I have the privilege of being involved in the training of Family Medicine consultants (GPs) in conjunction with Kabarak University. As part of that role I run the course on ‘Christian Faith and Healing’. During this programme we ask questions such as:
- Does a patient’s spiritual/religious view affect their health?
- Can and should we engage with people’s spiritual views as healthcare professionals?
- What is the role of healthcare providers when speaking into religious/cultural practices, e.g. female circumcision or lip cutting?
Spiritual and physical
In the UK, doctors often like to create a clear distinction between spiritual issues and physical ones, with any interplay being left to the periphery. A classic example would be what to do when a Jehovah’s Witness refuses a blood transfusion because of their beliefs. In reality the issues surrounding health and religious or spiritual beliefs are much more pervasive than this. When I work as a GP in the UK I see people who come for a consultation because they feel lost and that life has no purpose. As a Christian I also see people who are called to question if God is real or good because they or family members are sick or suffering. While we may like to try to separate out physical sickness from its surrounding context, actually things are not so simple. Our living and working environments, our background and beliefs, and our mental health and physical health are all intertwined.
“Wherever we live or work we need to recognise that we have been created as holistic beings; our physical, mental, spiritual, social and psychological health are all inextricably linked.”
In Kenya, and indeed most of Africa, the general view is much more holistic, with most people believing that spiritual and physical health are inextricably linked. While this may be preferable to the false dichotomy often seen in the UK, it does bring its own challenges for healthcare providers. If you believe you are sick because you have been cursed what will you do? Who will you go and see – a doctor who can only treat a physical problem, or the witchdoctor who you believe can lift the curse? If you hold a fatalistic religious view that suggests that whatever happens to you is just God’s will, then why even go and seek healthcare at all?
People’s spiritual views affect when they present for healthcare, which treatments they have had before they reach you, and which treatments they are now willing to accept. Their views also affect many cultural practices, several of which (e.g. female circumcision) can have significant health implications.
Seeing the whole picture
Wherever we live or work we need to recognise that we have been created as holistic beings; our physical, mental, spiritual, social and psychological health are all inextricably linked. Therefore, if we are to be good healthcare providers and/or believers, we must be willing to engage in all aspects of people’s lives. As healthcare providers we may need to think carefully about how and when to address our patients’ spiritual needs, and yet the call is clear. In the gospel of Mark (2:1-12) a paralytic man is laid before Jesus. He would have had a huge number of physical, social and psychological needs and therefore it is striking that Jesus’ first words to him are “Your sins are forgiven”. At the end of this encounter with Jesus the man walks away fully healed; physically, socially and of course spiritually. It is a great lesson to us all from the great physician.