Hospital Defends Plans to Turn Patients' Beds to Face Mecca

By Patrick Goodenough | July 7, 2008 | 8:18 PM EDT

( - A hospital in northern England is playing down media reports saying that nurses have been ordered to stop normal duties five times a day to turn Muslim patients' beds so that they face Mecca.

British tabloid newspapers reported Tuesday that at a hospital in West Yorkshire county, "overworked" nurses in the taxpayer-funded National Health Service (NHS) were struggling to cope with the additional duties required for Muslim patients.

Apart from moving the beds, the nurses also have to provide bathing water for pre-prayer ablutions, the reports said.

The new duties were causing "havoc," said the Daily Express, while the Daily Star said they were "creating turmoil" and quoted a doctor at the hospital as saying it was a case of "political correctness gone mad."

Devout Muslims pray five times daily -- generally before sunrise, after noon, before sunset, after sunset, and after dark -- facing the direction of the Kabaa in Mecca, Islam's most revered site.

The hospital is located in the municipal borough of Kirklees, where 10 percent of the population of 400,000 is Muslim, mostly of Pakistani origin, according to 2001 government statistics.

The media reports were based on a release by the "NHS trust" -- the local corporation responsible for the hospital -- which said that hospital staff were "positioning the beds of very ill Muslim patients to face Mecca if requested by the patient, providing shower facilities for patients, as well as bathing facilities [and] providing halal meal options for patients."

Nurses also taking undergoing training workshops to learn how they could further improve service for Muslims, in line with a "continued commitment to meet the privacy and dignity needs of all their patients," it said.

It quoted hospital matron Catherine Briggs as saying some Muslim former patients "suggested that a more informed understanding of the Islamic cultures would help staff to further improve their service."

"We always do our best to listen to our patients and are willing to adapt our nursing practices where possible to help patients uphold their cultural beliefs," she said.

In reaction to the media reports, the hospital issued a new statement on Tuesday, calling the coverage "entirely inaccurate."

"Nurses are not being removed from their duties to move patients' beds towards Mecca," chief nurse Tracey McErlain-Burns said. "Moving patients' beds for prayer five times a day has not been suggested as part of this workshop and staff have not been ordered to do this."

But, she added, "In the context of responding to requests from patients and families, particularly when faced with a very ill patient, it is entirely reasonable that nurses consider all practical steps to meet a patient's cultural or religious needs. This may include adjusting the position of the bed, or escorting the patient to the chapel or faith center."

Under seven-year-old race relations legislation, NHS trusts are required to promote equality between different ethnicities and to publish data showing that they are complying with the law. A government review published last month found that only 35 out of 394 NHS trusts were fulfilling all of their race relations duties.

Last September, an NHS trust in Lancashire, a county adjacent to West Yorkshire, announced the introduction of burqa-like gowns including a choice of head coverings for patients "whose culture or religion requires them to be more modestly clothed."

In August, a Muslim youth organization complained about plans to cut medical services at a hospital near Manchester, saying that the local NHS trust had not carried out a detailed "Race Impact Assessment" beforehand.

" One of the major impacts of this decision will be on Muslim pregnant women," said the Ramadhan Foundation. "If they are about to give birth, they will under the proposals have to travel over five miles to a hospital -- they are more likely to give birth in a car.

"In Islam in it obligatory that Muslim women that give birth in private," the organization said. "The cultural and religious needs of Muslims have been ignored.""

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Patrick Goodenough
Patrick Goodenough
Spencer Journalism Fellow