Religious and personal beliefs
A doctor’s faith and values can be a great personal support to them throughout their career. But there may be times when their personal beliefs can impact their practice.
On these occasions, it’s important doctors are supported by their colleagues, employer or medical school. They should work together so they can practise in a way that’s in line with their beliefs, while making sure their patients can access the care they need.
Here, doctors and medical students will find key information that will help them to practise in accordance with their values. There are also resources that medical schools, employers and training organisations can use to support staff and colleagues.
Doctors in training and medical students may choose to conscientiously object to providing particular treatments, as long as they do so in line with our guidance.
Good medical practice
Para. 52 You must explain to patients if you have a conscientious objection to a particular procedure. You must tell them their right to see another doctor and make sure they have enough information to exercise that right. In providing this information you must not imply or express disapproval of the patient’s lifestyle, choice or beliefs. If it is not practical for a patient to arrange to see another doctor, you must make sure that arrangements are made for another suitably qualified colleague to take over your role.
(Good medical practice, paragraph 52)
Personal beliefs and medical practice
Para. 8 You may choose to opt out of providing a particular procedure because of your personal beliefs and values, as long as this does not result in direct or indirect discrimination against, or harassment of, individual patients or groups of patients. This means you must not refuse to treat a particular patient or group of patients because of your personal beliefs or views about them*. And you must not refuse to treat the health consequences of lifestyle choices to which you object because of your beliefs**.
Para. 9 Employing and contracting bodies are entitled to require doctors to fulfil contractual requirements that may restrict doctors’ freedom to work in accordance with their conscience. This is a matter between doctors and their employing or contracting bodies.
Para. 10 If, having taken account of your legal and ethical obligations, you wish to exercise a conscientious objection to particular services or procedures, you must do your best to make sure that patients who may consult you about it are aware of your objection in advance. You can do this by making sure that any printed material about your practice and the services you provide explains if there are any services you will not normally provide because of a conscientious objection.
Para. 11 You should also be open with employers, partners or colleagues about your conscientious objection. You should explore with them how you can practise in accordance with your beliefs without compromising patient care and without over burdening colleagues.
Para. 12 Patients have a right to information about their condition and the options open to them. If you have a conscientious objection to a treatment or procedure that may be clinically appropriate for the patient, you must do the following.
- Tell the patient that you do not provide the particular treatment or procedure, being careful not to cause distress. You may wish to mention the reason for your objection, but you must be careful not to imply any judgement of the patient.
- Tell the patient that they have a right to discuss their condition and the options for treatment (including the option that you object to) with another practitioner who does not hold the same objection as you and can advise them about the treatment or procedure you object to.
- Make sure that the patient has enough information to arrange to see another doctor who does not hold the same objection as you.
Para. 13 If it’s not practical for a patient to arrange to see another doctor, you must make sure that arrangements are made – without delay – for another suitably qualified colleague to advise, treat or refer the patient. You must bear in mind the patient’s vulnerability and act promptly to make sure they are not denied appropriate treatment or services. If the patient has a disability, you should make reasonable adjustments*** to your practice to allow them to receive care to meet their needs. In emergencies, you must not refuse to provide treatment necessary to save the life of, or prevent serious deterioration in the health of, a person because the treatment conflicts with your personal beliefs.
Para. 14 You will not necessarily need to end a consultation with your patient because you have an objection to a treatment or procedure that may be appropriate for them. However, if you feel (or the patient feels) that your conscientious objection prevents you from making an objective assessment, you should suggest again that the patient seeks advice and treatment elsewhere.
Para. 15 You must not obstruct patients from accessing services or leave them with nowhere to turn.
Para. 16 Whatever your personal beliefs about the procedure in question, you must be respectful of the patient’s dignity and views.
*For example, this means that you must not refuse to provide a patient with medical services because the patient is proposing to undergo, is undergoing, or has undergone gender reassignment. However, you may decide not to provide or refer any patients (including patients proposing to undergo gender reassignment) for particular services to which you hold a conscientious objection, for example, treatments that cause infertility.
**For example, this means that while you may decide not to provide contraception (including emergency contraception) services to any patient, you cannot be willing to prescribe it only for women who live in accordance with your beliefs (e.g. by prescribing for married women but not for unmarried women).
***This is a requirement of . ‘Reasonable adjustments’ does not only mean changes to the physical environment. It can include, for example, being flexible about appointment time or length, and making arrangements for those with communication difficulties, such as impaired hearing. For more information, see the Equality and Human Rights Commission website.
Achieving good medical practice
Para. 60 Doctors may choose to opt out of providing certain types of treatment because of their personal beliefs and values, as long as this does not result in discrimination against individuals or groups of patients. If a doctor has a conscientious objection to arranging or providing a particular procedure, they must explain this to the patient, tell them about their right to see another doctor and make they have the information to do so. Doctors must not express disapproval of the patient’s lifestyle, choices or beliefs in doing this. You can more information in the GMC’s guidance Personal beliefs and medical practice.
Para. 61 Medical schools have an obligation to make adjustments for cultural or religious beliefs, but they must balance these adjustments against practical considerations. For example, they may need to schedule clinical placements or assessments during certain religious festivals or at times of religious observance.
Para. 62 As a medical student, you also have the right to hold a conscientious objection to some types of treatment and you should discuss this with your medical school. However, you must achieve the capabilities described in Outcomes for graduates.
The BMA has also produced some helpful information on conscientious objection for doctors and medical students.
Expressing your beliefs
We believe that doctors and medical students should be able to practise in line with their personal beliefs and values, as long as they follow the framework of good practice set out in our guidance.
Good medical practice
Para. 48 You must treat patients fairly and with respect whatever their life choices and beliefs.
Para. 54 You must not express your personal beliefs (including political, religious and moral beliefs) to patients in ways that exploit their vulnerability or are likely to cause them distress.
Para. 59 You must not unfairly discriminate against patients or colleagues by allowing your personal views to affect your professional relationships or the treatment you provide or arrange. You should challenge colleagues if their behaviour does not comply with this guidance, and follow the guidance in paragraph 25c (see section Domain 2: Safety and quality) if the behaviour amounts to abuse or denial of a patient’s or colleague’s rights.
Personal beliefs and medical practice
Para. 3 We recognise that personal beliefs and cultural practices are central to the lives of doctors and patients, and that all doctors have personal values that affect their day-to-day practice. We don’t wish to prevent doctors from practising in line with their beliefs and values, as long as they also follow the guidance in Good medical practice. Neither do we wish to prevent patients from receiving care that is consistent with, or meets the requirements of, their beliefs and values.
Para. 4 Doctors may practise medicine in accordance with their beliefs, provided that they act in accordance with relevant legislation and:
- do not treat patients unfairly
- do not deny patients access to appropriate medical treatment or services
- do not cause patients distress.
If any of these circumstances is likely to arise, we expect doctors to provide effective patient care, advice or support in line with Good medical practice, whatever their personal beliefs.
*This includes your views about a patient’s or colleague’s lifestyle, culture or their social or economic status, as well as the characteristics protected by legislation: age, disability, gender reassignment, race, marriage and civil partnership, pregnancy and maternity, religion or belief, sex and sexual orientation.
Achieving good medical practice
Para. 69 As a medical student, you won’t be expected to make decisions about treatment options. But you mustn’t let your own opinions or views affect the way you treat patients and others or the information you give them.
Para. 70 Medical students must treat their colleagues with respect. In your case, colleagues include your fellow medical and other healthcare students, the clinicians and other staff you work with on clinical placements, and the staff at your medical school.
Para.71 You must not unfairly discriminate against patients or colleagues on the basis of their lifestyle, culture, or social or economic status. This includes characteristics protected by legislation, which are:
- gender reassignment
- pregnancy and maternity
- religion or belief
- sexual orientation.
Handling unconscious bias
Unconscious biases are beliefs, attitudes and stereotypes that can affect our understanding and decisions in a way that we’re not aware of. If steps aren’t taken to avoid acting on such biases, it can lead to unfair treatments and discriminatory practices.
Reflective practice can help you to identify your unconscious biases and how they influence your thinking, so you can alter the way you respond to people or situations.
Developing your skills as a reflective practitioner is fundamental to making good decisions as a professional. You can use our resources to help you to become a more effective reflective practitioner.
Outcomes for graduates
Professional and ethical responsibilities
Para. 2 Newly qualified doctors must behave accordingly to ethical and professional principles. They must be able to:
- recognise the potential impact of their attitudes, values, beliefs, perceptions and personal biases (which may be unconscious) on individuals and groups and identify personal strategies to address this.
(Outcomes for graduates, paragraph 2, j)
Opting out of training
All medical students need to meet the different competencies set out for them at different stages of their careers. But there may be some occasions where you feel that you have to opt out of certain parts of your training to practice in line with your beliefs. If this is the case, you should discuss your options with your medical school.
Outcomes for graduates
Diagnosis and medical management
Para 13. Newly qualified doctors must be able to perform a range of diagnostic, therapeutic and practical procedures safely and effectively, and identify, according to their level of skill and experience, the procedures for which they need supervision to ensure patient safety*.
Para 14. Newly qualified doctors must be able to work collaboratively with patients, their relatives, carers or other advocates to make clinical judgements and decisions based on a holistic assessment of the patient and their needs, priorities and concerns, and appreciating the importance of the links between pathophysiological, psychological, spiritual, religious, social and cultural factors for each individual.
- Take account of patient’s concerns, beliefs, choices and preferences, and respect the rights of patients to reach decisions with their doctor about their treatment and care and to refuse or limit treatment.
Para 16. Newly qualified doctors must be able to give immediate care to adults, children and young people in medical and psychiatric emergencies and seek support from colleagues if necessary.
*This document will be supplemented by a list of practical procedures – a minimum set of practical skills that newly qualified doctors must have when they start work for the first time so they can practise safely.
Your patients' personal beliefs
A patient’s personal beliefs may affect how they want to be treated, and you may have to alter your practice or course of treatment to do so.
Personal beliefs and medical practice
Para. 17 Patients’ personal beliefs may lead them to:
- ask for a procedure for mainly religious, cultural or social reasons
- refuse treatment that you judge to be of overall benefit to them.
Para. 18 If patients (or those with parental responsibility for them) ask for a procedure, such as circumcision of male children, for mainly religious or cultural reasons, you should discuss with them the benefits, risks and side effects of the procedure. You should usually provide procedures* that patients request and that you assess to be of overall benefit to the patient. If the patient is a child, you should usually provide a procedure or treatment that you can assess to be in their best interests. In all circumstances, you will also need the patient’s or parental consent.
Para. 19 In assessing what is of overall benefit to adult patients, you must take into account their cultural, religious or other beliefs and values. For further advice on assessing overall benefit, see our guidance Decision making and consent and Treatment and care towards the end of life: good practice in decision making.
Para. 20 If the patient is a child, you must proceed on the basis of the best interests of the child and with consent. Assessing best interests will include the child’s and/or the parents’ cultural, religious or other beliefs and values. You should get the child's consent if they have the maturity and understanding to give it. If not, you should get consent from all those with parental responsibility. If you cannot get consent for a procedure, for example, because the parents cannot agree and disputes cannot be resolved informally, you should:
- inform the child’s parents that you cannot provide the service unless you have authorisation from the court
- advise the child’s parents to seek legal advice on applying to the court.
Para. 21 If you judge that a procedure is not in the best interests of a child, you must explain this to the child (if he or she can understand) and their parents. If you do not believe that the procedure is of overall benefit to an adult patient, you must explain this to them. You are not obliged to provide treatments in such cases. If you hold objections to the procedure as a result of your religious or moral beliefs, you should follow our advice on conscientious objection.
Para. 22 If you agree to perform any procedure for religious or cultural reasons, you must meet that same standards of practice required for performing therapeutic procedures including:
- having the necessary skills and experience to perform the procedure and use appropriate measures, including anaesthesia, to minimise pain and discomfort both during and after the procedure
- keeping your knowledge and skills up to date
- ensuring conditions are hygienic
- providing appropriate aftercare.
Para. 23 If you are carrying out circumcision, or another procedure, for religious reasons, you should explain to the patient (or, in the case of children, their parents) that they may invite their religious advisor to be present during the procedure to give advice on how it should be performed to meet the requirements if their faith.
Para. 24 You must respect a competent patient’s decision to refuse an investigation or treatment, even if you think their decision is wrong or irrational. You may advise the patient of your clinical opinion, but you must not put pressure on them to accept your advice. You must be careful that your words and actions do not imply judgement of the patient or their beliefs and values.
Para. 25 If you have a conscientious objection – for example, to the withdrawal of life-prolonging treatment – you should follow the guidance in paragraphs 79–80 and 47–48 of our guidance Treatment and care towards the end of life: good practice in decision making.
Para. 26 If the patient is a child who lacks capacity to make a decision, and both parents refuse treatment on the grounds of their religious or moral beliefs, you must discuss their concerns and look for treatment options that will accommodate their beliefs. You should involve the child in a way appropriate to their age and maturity. If following a discussion of all the options you cannot reach an agreement, and treatment is essential to preserve life or prevent serious deterioration in health, you should seek advice on approaching the court.
Para. 27 In an emergency, you can provide treatment that is immediately necessary to save life or prevent deterioration in health without consent or, in exceptional circumstances, against the wishes of a person with parental responsibility.
Para. 28 For further advice on consent to treatment involving children and adults, including adults who lack capacity, see our guidance Decision making and consent and 0–18 years: guidance for all doctors.
Para. 29 In assessing a patient’s conditions and taking a history, you should take account of spiritual, religious, social and cultural factors, as well as their clinical history and symptoms (see Good medical practice, paragraph 15a). It may therefore be appropriate to ask a patient about their personal beliefs. However, you must not put pressure on a patient to discuss or justify their beliefs, or the absence of them.
Para. 30 During a consultation, you should keep the discussion relevant to the patient’s care and treatment. If you disclose any personal information to a patient, including talking to a patient about personal beliefs, you must be very careful not to breach the professional boundary that exists between you. These boundaries are essential to maintaining a relationship of trust between a doctor and a patient.
Para. 31 You may talk about your own personal beliefs only if a patient asks you directly about them, or indicates they would welcome such a discussion. You must not impose your beliefs and values on patients, or cause distress by the inappropriate or insensitive expression of them.
*Where you have the knowledge, skills and experience to do so safely.
Resources for training organisations
It’s important to support medical students and doctors in training so they can practice in line with their personal beliefs. There are several resources available to help organisations to do this. This includes:
- – NHS Employers have a range of resources, good practise examples, blogs and infographics which can be found on the NHS Employers website.
- – resources from the British Islamic Medical Association (BIMA) to help Muslim female healthcare professionals understand their rights when it comes to observing the hijab and bare below the elbow.
- Religion or belief – a practical guide from the Department for Health that helps NHS Organisations to address their responsibilities relating to religion and beliefs.
- Religious identity and working in the NHS – a report from NHS Employers and the University of Surrey into religious identity and working in the NHS.
- –a document from St George’s, University of London that has been highlighted by many medical schools as a helpful template for setting up their own policies.
- Spiritual care matters – a resource produced by NHS Scotland for those across the health services and who want to teach and explain more about spiritual care.
- Uniforms and workwear: guidance for NHS employers – NHS England and NHS Employers have published guidance to help all NHS organisations to create local policies on dress codes.