Prescribing Jesus

Is it appropriate for a doctor to offer Christianity as part of the treatment?

There's something wearying about the seemingly endless procession of "religious discrimination" cases coming before courts and employment tribunals. But the case of Dr Richard Scott, currently being heard by the General Medical Council, is a remarkable one. The accusation against the Margate GP is that he inappropriately discussed religion with a patient, a "vulnerable" and depressed 24-year-old. To be more specific, having first gained the patient's consent to broach the topic, he explained that Christianity might be of greater benefit than the religion (unspecified) to which the patient currently adheres. Becoming a Christian, it was implied, might help him get better.

Paul Ozin, for the GMC, said that the patient -- said to have been suicidal and to have had "lifestyle issues" at the time of the consultation -- was left "very upset" and felt Scott "had belittled his own faith". Scott contends that he did nothing wrong. He was merely exercising his "professional judgement", as allowed by GMC guidelines.

These professional guidelines seem quite straightforward. Here are the two relevant paragraphs:

19. You should not normally discuss your personal beliefs with patients unless those beliefs are directly relevant to the patient's care. You must not impose your beliefs on patients, or cause distress by the inappropriate or insensitive expression of religious, political or other beliefs or views. Equally, you must not put pressure on patients to discuss or justify their beliefs (or the absence of them).

33. You must not express to your patients your personal beliefs, including political, religious or moral beliefs, in ways that exploit their vulnerability or that are likely to cause them distress.

Here's where things begin to get interesting. While the guidelines seem to envisage that any discussion of religion in a clinical setting should be a rare occurrence, Scott would appear to have been taking the opportunity to evangelise to his patients on an almost daily basis. In an interview earlier this year, he stated that he had raised the subject of Christianity with "literally thousands" of his patients. Not only that, he often encouraged them to attend evangelical Alpha Courses at his local church -- and that, out of every ten he asked, eight took up the offer and two "had their lives changed as a result".

Scott can at least not be accused of springing Christianity on his patients without due warning. He belongs to a Christian-oriented practice, the Bethesda Medical Centre in Margate. Until recently, the official NHS website carried a profile of the surgery, which stated:

The six partners are all practising Christians from a variety of Churches and their faith guides the way in which they view their work and responsibilities to the patients and employees. The partners feel that the offer of talking to you on spiritual matters is of great benefit. If you do not wish this, that is your right and will not affect your medical care. Please tell the doctor (or drop a note to the practice manager) if you do not wish to speak on matters of faith.

All this is, as I say, quite remarkable. This isn't the case of a doctor being persecuted by grim-faced secularists, because he once dared to mention his faith during a consultation. This is a doctor who, together with his colleagues, openly offers God as part of his normal treatment: a doctor who expects patients to opt out of being preached at whenever they go to the surgery with a sore throat or in need of a blood test.

The hearing is only taking place because Scott refused the GMC's decision to reprimand him over the incident. Backed by the Christian Legal Centre -- which is usually to be found at the heart of such cases -- he is insisting on his right to offer Jesus on the NHS.

I dug up an article written by Scott in 2002 for the magazine of the Medical Christian Fellowship, in which he was quite open about his motivation:

Evangelism is a job for all Christians, at all times and in all places, and Christian GPs are in a unique position to reach the lost in their local area. Sharing the gospel with patients is not an abuse of trust because God himself gives us the authority and salvation is their greatest need. We need to allow time for consultations in which the gospel might reasonably be introduced . . .

The article says nothing about the GMC guidelines but a great deal about the Bible. Scott writes that his "own particular focus is on depressed patients and anyone wearing a cross", the latter being "often lapsed Christians who carry much guilt and welcome the chance to discuss their faith". He mentions the "Christian notice board in the waiting room" and tells a story about a six-year-old boy who was encouraged by one of his posters to "profess his belief in Christ".

Scott is clear that Christian doctors have a special mission to save their patients from hell.

People are dying for the lack of the gospel message; eternal separation from God in hell is their future.

We are in a position second to none to reach the lost in our local area. We certainly have a greater access to non-Christians in a congenial environment than most full-time ministers . . . Our territory, our peculiar mission field, is our patients.

Far from Scott being the latest victim of a politically-correct secular tyranny, it would appear that, for many years now, the Bethesda Medical Centre has been able to function as part surgery, part evangelical outreach centre. This is an extraordinary state of affairs, even in a National Health Service that continues to fund homeopathy.

Belief, disbelief and beyond belief
John Moore
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The man who created the fake Tube sign explains why he did it

"We need to consider the fact that fake news isn't always fake news at the source," says John Moore.

"I wrote that at 8 o'clock on the evening and before midday the next day it had been read out in the Houses of Parliament."

John Moore, a 44-year-old doctor from Windsor, is describing the whirlwind process by which his social media response to Wednesday's Westminster attack became national news.

Moore used a Tube-sign generator on the evening after the attack to create a sign on a TfL Service Announcement board that read: "All terrorists are politely reminded that THIS IS LONDON and whatever you do to us we will drink tea and jolly well carry on thank you." Within three hours, it had just fifty shares. By the morning, it had accumulated 200. Yet by the afternoon, over 30,000 people had shared Moore's post, which was then read aloud on BBC Radio 4 and called a "wonderful tribute" by prime minister Theresa May, who at the time believed it was a genuine Underground sign. 

"I think you have to be very mindful of how powerful the internet is," says Moore, whose viral post was quickly debunked by social media users and then national newspapers such as the Guardian and the Sun. On Thursday, the online world split into two camps: those spreading the word that the sign was "fake news" and urging people not to share it, and those who said that it didn't matter that it was fake - the sentiment was what was important. 

Moore agrees with the latter camp. "I never claimed it was a real tube sign, I never claimed that at all," he says. "In my opinion the only fake news about that sign is that it has been reported as fake news. It was literally just how I was feeling at the time."

Moore was motivated to create and post the sign when he was struck by the "very British response" to the Westminster attack. "There was no sort of knee-jerk Islamaphobia, there was no dramatisation, it was all pretty much, I thought, very calm reporting," he says. "So my initial thought at the time was just a bit of pride in how London had reacted really." Though he saw other, real Tube signs online, he wanted to create his own in order to create a tribute that specifically epitomised the "very London" response. 

Yet though Moore insists he never claimed the sign was real, his caption on the image - which now has 100,800 shares - is arguably misleading. "Quintessentially British..." Moore wrote on his Facebook post, and agrees now that this was ambiguous. "It was meant to relate to the reaction that I saw in London in that day which I just thought was very calm and measured. What the sign was trying to do was capture the spirit I'd seen, so that's what I was actually talking about."

Not only did Moore not mean to mislead, he is actually shocked that anyone thought the sign was real. 

"I'm reasonably digitally savvy and I was extremely shocked that anyone thought it was real," he says, explaining that he thought everyone would be able to spot a fake after a "You ain't no muslim bruv" sign went viral after the Leytonstone Tube attack in 2015. "I thought this is an internet meme that people know isn't true and it's fine to do because this is a digital thing in a digital world."

Yet despite his intentions, Moore's sign has become the centre of debate about whether "nice" fake news is as problematic as that which was notoriously spread during the 2016 United States Presidential elections. Though Moore can understand this perspective, he ultimately feels as though the sentiment behind the sign makes it acceptable. 

"I use the word fake in inverted commas because I think fake implies the intention to deceive and there wasn't [any]... I think if the sentiment is ok then I think it is ok. I think if you were trying to be divisive and you were trying to stir up controversy or influence people's behaviour then perhaps I wouldn't have chosen that forum but I think when you're only expressing your own emotion, I think it's ok.

"The fact that it became so-called fake news was down to other people's interpretation and not down to the actual intention... So in many interesting ways you can see that fake news doesn't even have to originate from the source of the news."

Though Moore was initially "extremely shocked" at the reponse to his post, he says that on reflection he is "pretty proud". 

"I'm glad that other people, even the powers that be, found it an appropriate phrase to use," he says. "I also think social media is often denigrated as a source of evil and bad things in the world, but on occasion I think it can be used for very positive things. I think the vast majority of people who shared my post and liked my post have actually found the phrase and the sentiment useful to them, so I think we have to give social media a fair judgement at times and respect the fact it can be a source for good."

Amelia Tait is a technology and digital culture writer at the New Statesman.