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Hospital Bridging Gap Between Muslim Patients and Doctors

By Kelley Weiss

Kansas City, MO – Going to the doctor can be a struggle for anyone. But it can be much worse for a Muslim woman who's afraid of violating Islamic law. The problem is that many times patients aren't sure of what's allowed by the Quran and health care providers aren't aware that Muslim women have special needs. These uncertainties can cause women to refuse care, even in life threatening situations. KCUR's Kelley Weiss reports.

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When Dr. Mark Schnee was called into a patient's room during a busy night at Truman Medical Centers almost two years ago to do an emergency Cesarean section he was confronted with a surprise.

Dr. Mark Schnee: "I walk in there and I try to introduce myself and he basically comes around from the edge of the bed like a rhinoceros to push me out of the door, not even to enter the room."

The patient was Muslim and the husband was outraged that a male stranger saw his wife in labor. And, since there were not any women doctors available to do the C-section the patient refused care. Schnee says being forced out of the room and told the woman would not accept his help made him irate and confused.

Dr. Mark Schnee: "What do I do, what am I supposed to do, I've never been told what to do, who to call?"

Schnee was worried that the mother and child could die without the C-section so he made a quick call to the hospital's attorney and found out there was nothing he could do as long as the patient refused care. Luckily, he says, the baby was born without complications. But with a growing number of Muslims patients coming to the hospital - Truman treats almost 12,000 Arabic speaking patients a year, most of whom are Muslim - Schnee says he knew the hospital needed to understand Islam better.

So, one of Truman's lawyers, Lewis Popper, set out to clarify the Islamic Law regarding male doctors treating women patients by calling about 40 hospitals to find an answer.

Lewis Popper: "They didn't really have an answer and no one I called really knew what the Islamic law on this subject was."

With no legal guidance on the issue Truman turned to a Kansas City Islamic scholar and prayer leader Hamed Ghazali. He says often Muslim's aren't clear on the law.

Hamed Ghazali: "It is very important to educate the Muslim's themselves. Many of the Muslims don't really know exactly what the Islamic law says about these things - they are not so evident and known among the average Muslim."

Ghazali spent two years studying the Quran and conferring with Islamic leaders around the country to develop a letter clarifying the issue. The letter is now available to patients and sites verses from the Quran, written in Arabic. It explains if a woman's life is on the line it's OK for a male doctor to treat her. But this is an exception to the law and contact with men is much more limited for Muslim women in their everyday lives.

During Friday Prayer at the Islamic Center of Kansas City a group of women listen to the Imam's lecture in a separate room from the men over loud speakers. Rouyda Alahmad Qaddour is from Syria and teaches the Quran at the center's Islamic School and has six kids. She worries that some Muslim women don't fully understand Islamic law and that can cause them to settle for substandard care. As a mother and teacher of the Quran she understands the difference.

Rouyda Alahmad Qaddour: "As a Muslim woman I really need the best of quality, I won't settle for the low quality. Because I know that Islam is a religion who cares about my body so why should I accept that just because I'm a Muslim?"

And Muslim patients have other concerns when going to the doctor. Dr. Memoona Hasnain, director of research in family medicine at the University of Illinois at Chicago, emigrated here from Pakistan and is studying barriers Muslim women might face in getting health care. She says as a doctor and Muslim woman she's aware of the needs but often American doctors are not.

Dr. Memoona Hasnain: "The main problem is when their provider or the system is not aware of their needs or if they're aware they cannot take them into account."

For example, it's usually distressing for Muslim women to put on a revealing hospital gown when they are used to only showing their face and hands. And sometimes doctors don't understand that these patients fast and have diet restrictions.

Hasnain says accommodating Muslim women can be as easy as scheduling ahead for a female doctor, providing a hospital gown that covers them completely or not serving them pork while they're in the hospital. She says the letter Truman developed clarifying Islamic law is also helpful.

This month Truman will have the Islamic scholar, Hamed Ghazali, train medical staff about the Quran and health care and he will outline simple and inexpensive fixes hospitals can make. Ghazali says the letter has sparked interest from hospitals in Kansas City and around the country requesting copies. And he says more awareness on this issue only means better care for Muslim patients.

Funding for health care coverage on KCUR has been provided by the Health Care Foundation of Greater Kansas City.

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