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Story | Research
12 December 2019

WISH Vatican Symposium Panel Discussion


Opportunity for inter-faith dialogue aims to provide deeper understanding of ethical dilemmas in healthcare

Palliative care remains uneven throughout the world, and greater knowledge and dialogue is needed to improve medical care for the elderly and those nearing the end of their lives, the CEO of the World Innovation Summit for Health has told an inter-faith conference in Vatican City.

Speaking at the Religion and Medical Ethics: Palliative Care and the Mental Health of the Elderly symposium at the seat of the Roman Catholic Church, Sultana Afdhal pointed out that the importance of palliative care in preventing and easing the suffering of those with terminal illnesses was highlighted by the World Health Organization three decades ago.

But despite the time that has elapsed since then, she added: “Its application remains, at best, patchy – especially in the wider context of ethics – and there remains a huge need for such services to be widely-used.”

Experts on ethics, Islam, Christianity, Judaism, and medicine have gathered at the symposium in Rome to highlight gaps in modern scholarship on palliative care, and investigate ways of tackling the ethical challenges that sit at the intersection of palliative care and religious bioethics. The two-day event has been organized by the World Innovation Summit for Health (WISH), a Qatar Foundation initiative, and the Vatican’s Pontifical Academy for Life (PAL), in association with academic partners BMJ.

Afdhal said a lack of knowledge about palliative care - and its application in different faiths - mean many healthcare professionals and practitioners are “put in vulnerable positions where they might be subject to negligence or malpractice”; and that lingering stigmas and controversies about palliative care are “rooted in the duty of carers to ensure people live rather than die”. She also highlighted the need to answer pressing questions around, and raise public awareness of, palliative care, as well as to improve policies surrounding end-of-life care.

Since WISH was established in 2012, its mission has been to build a healthier world through global collaboration, and Afdhal said: "It is therefore a natural progression for us to be at Vatican City to actively promote dialogue between people of faith and medical experts around issues that have such a profound effect on individuals, their families, their communities, and healthcare workers.

“WISH sees itself as providing a solid platform that enables the meeting of global experts and stakeholders to discuss key healthcare issues. We hope to initiate a conversation on palliative care that has the genuine potential to benefit humanity as a whole, regardless of individual beliefs.”

The inter-faith nature of the symposium - and the involvement of experts from both faith and medical backgrounds – has provided a rare opportunity to develop a deeper understanding of the ethical dilemmas experienced by healthcare practitioners from different spiritual backgrounds, explained Afdhal.

"Interfaith and medical inter-disciplinary dialogue about palliative care and the mental health of older members of our community is essential in helping to establish a common ground from which we can find more effective ways of bridge our differences in faith-based ethical approaches,” she said.

“By seeking to provide more uniform approaches to dealing with ethical challenges, we can be more effective in our efforts to help those in need. We can also be united in advancing the idea that treating people holistically, and in a way that alleviates suffering, requires a willingness to consider a person’s spiritual needs as we as their physical and mental needs. 

“It is both right and important that we do not shy away from these topics, and I believe our discussions can only benefit those who are affected by such issues, as we take back our shared knowledge and understanding to our respective communities around the world.”

In 2018, WISH published a report on Islamic ethics and palliative care, and earlier this year it signed a declaration on palliative care with PAL. In October, this declaration was used as a basis for a positioning paper on palliative care that was signed by a large group of Abrahamic faith leaders, and presented to His Holiness Pope Francis.

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