Caring for Muslim Patients

January 30, 2017
Photo of  Dr. Heba Abolaban speaking on "Caring for Muslim Patients"
Dr. Heba Abolaban address the audience while panelists Dr. Robert Marlin (left) and Dr. Ahmad Al-Moujahed look on.

Inquire. Acknowledge. Show respect. Educate. Reach out to the community.
Those were key takeaways for more than 300 students at the MGH Institute’s annual Ann W. Caldwell President’s Lecture: Interprofessional Rounds on January 19.
During “Caring for Our Muslim Patients,” Dr. Heba Abolaban, Dr. Ahmad Al-Moujahed, and Dr. Robert P. Marlin gave insights on ways in which health professionals can effectively care for Muslim patients. 
The speakers gave several examples about the problems that arise when health care workers don’t consider how a patient’s faith affects health. One story involved a woman whose child needed an inhaler. Because alcohol—which practicing Muslims are forbidden to drink—was a very minor ingredient, the mother opted to throw away the inhaler. But, had the physician asked about the woman’s religious background, an inhaler without alcohol could have been provided.
“Your role is to inquire,” said Dr. Abolaban, who works at the Massachusetts Department of Public Health as a women’s health network care coordination consultant. “It’s a magic sentence. They will tell you their story, and they will like that you asked.”
Her husband, Dr. Al-Moujahed, told how health care in their native Syria is what he called “authoritarian medicine,” meaning that patients do not question physicians – completely different than how it works in the United States. “So, imagine someone who has little education and can’t speak English well, and put them into a new situation where they are expected to participate in their own care. It is very difficult.”
He stressed that because there is diversity among the Muslim population -- 25 percent of the world’s Muslims live in the Middle East – clinicians shouldn’t make assumptions that people with a common religion are alike.
Dr. Marlin, a staff physician who is an instructor at Harvard Medical School and director of Community Health Engagement at Cambridge Health Alliance, said that Muslims are the largest-growing population in eastern Massachusetts. Using Dr. Al-Moujahed’s story as an example, he noted, “It’s likely that every person in this room will care for a Muslim patient," he said. "What is applicable to a Muslim patient is applicable to all patients."