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Sharing personal information with patients sometimes is just natural for nurses. Working closely with patients while caring for them and giving them compassion warrants it.

The adage says that you don’t discuss some things with other people: religion, money, and politics. But is this really true, though?

Mindy B Zeitzer, PhD, MBE, RN, Visiting Assistant Professor of Nursing at the Linfield College, School of Nursing, has worked a lot with self-disclosure—when it’s okay to share information and when it’s not. She took time to answer our questions.

Nurses who work with patients may practice a particular religious faith or have none at all. When is it appropriate to share their faith with patients? When is it not appropriate?

Self-disclosure of any type including religious beliefs and religious practices should or can be done when the purpose benefits the patient. Meaning religion beliefs or practices can/should be shared when its purpose is to either help with patient goals or help develop a better nurse-patient relationship, a therapeutic relationship. For example, if the patient had particular religious beliefs and perhaps felt alone in those beliefs or was struggling with a certain aspect of health and religious beliefs and the nurse shared similar beliefs, the nurse might connect with the patient by discussing those beliefs and expressing empathy through understanding.

It would be inappropriate to share religious beliefs or practices if the purpose or intent was to serve the nurse’s goals rather than the patient’s. It also would be inappropriate if the nurse does not feel comfortable with sharing or divulging such information. When it comes to self-disclosure of any kind, the nurse should only share information and as much information as they feel comfortable sharing.

When can talking about their faith actually help patients?

Many patients turn to faith in difficult times with health. For some patients, turning to faith may be “new” to them, and they may not feel totally comfortable with it. As nurses, we are often at the bedside at those vulnerable times. Expressing empathy and understanding through shared beliefs—or even if they are not shared—can help a patient feel understood and talk about their current feelings, emotions, and experience. It can also help “normalize” the experience of thinking about faith at these difficult times, if that is what the patient needs.

Are there instances in which expressing their faith can get nurses in trouble?

Anytime a nurse discusses information pertaining to themselves (self-disclosure) to fulfill the nurse’s own goals such as trying to convince a patient to receive a certain treatment or refuse a certain treatment—based on the nurse’s beliefs—could be considered coercive. The nurse, rather, should try to help the patient understand/recognize their own beliefs and values so the patient can make an informed, well thought-through decision based on their own values and beliefs in order to make the best decision for the patient—rather than what is best for the nurse.

What advice would you give to nurses about sharing their faith in general—whether it’s with patients, families, or coworkers?

First, only share information about your beliefs if you feel comfortable doing so.

Second, before discussing your own beliefs, think about what will be accomplished by doing so. Does it help meet patient goals or personal goals?

Should they ask patients about their beliefs in a way to be cross-cultural?

An important aspect of being culturally sensitive is to make sure we meet [the] patient’s need related to cultural and religious beliefs. In order to do this, it’s important to ask if patients have a particular belief system, particular beliefs, or religious or cultural practices. Perhaps they would like to see a particular clergy member or have various care aspects modified—in particular: diet, modesty, the way we approach medical treatments, aspects pertaining to death and dying, pain control, etc. If we don’t ask about these needs, we likely will miss an important aspect of the patient and won’t be able to help the patient holistically.

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Michele Wojciechowski

Michele Wojciechowski is an award-winning writer and author of the humor book Next Time I Move, They’ll Carry Me Out in a Box.

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