Though the Hippocratic Oath traditionally taken by physicians before assuming their positions makes mention of several Greek gods and goddesses, modern hospitals do not share this particular allegiance. Yet, within the medical community exists a large portion of religiously-affiliated hospitals—Catholic, Methodist, non-denominational Protestant, Jewish, etc. Proponents of this practice claim that religious hospitals use previously established religious capital to meet community health needs. Opponents claim that religious hospitals have access to an extremely vulnerable cross-section of the population—those dealing with serious illness and injury—and choose to use this reality as leverage to garner new recruits. When coupled with the fact that approximately one-sixth of U.S. hospital patients are receiving services at Catholic hospitals alone, not counting other religious hospitals, and the trend becomes impossible to ignore. Between 1850 and 1955, Jewish communities founded general acute-care hospitals in 24 American cities.
The primary question on every patient’s mind is no doubt: am I receiving the best healthcare I can get? While the quality of care between secular and religious hospitals may be similar, how did religious hospitals come about in the first place? Why have they proliferated to become far-reaching, powerful institutions of medicine that dictate what healthcare services thousands of patients are able to receive? 1886 was a year in which only around 200 hospitals existed in the United States, and many patients (especially poor patients) struggled mightily to find help for even the most serious medical conditions. No medical coverage put healthcare services even further out of reach. Catholic institutions met this need by founding medical institutions like Sacred Heart in Spokane, Washington, a small refuge for the poor.
The medical climate in the modern United States is considerably different, especially when one considers access to medical coverage and healthcare services. There are now over 5700 hospitals in the U.S., (630 of which are Catholic), meaning that even rural populations typically have access to important healthcare services. Many of the leadership roles at these Catholic hospitals have traditionally been filled by nuns, however, and the number of available nuns in the U.S. has declined by roughly 70% since the mid-1990s. Present nuns in service in medical institutions are aging, and the demographic shift among hospital staff is changing accordingly.
Though their original intent may have been to provide the poor with healthcare services and medical consultation they would otherwise not receive, religious hospitals now face increasing scrutiny based on the healthcare services they elect to administer in a changing social climate. Health insurance is now relatively common, and those patients who cannot afford health insurance often have access to community health clinics where compensation for medical services rendered is based on a sliding scale according to income. In short, the profound need that created religious hospitals and medical institutions does not exist in as fierce a form as it once did.