Dr. on healthcare for Muslims

By Hamid Bendaas

Dr. Aasim Padela, director of the University of Chicago Medical Center’s Initiative on Islam and Medicine, was awarded the 2012 Ibn Sina Award for Islamic medical ethics this past December. The award, presented by the Compassionate Care Network, a Chicago-based non-profit that aims to increase access to health care services, recognizes him for his years of work to discover obstacles to health care access for Muslim communities and efforts to advance Islamic bioethics through interdisciplinary cooperation.

Much of Padela’s work is in the field, exploring the relationship between Muslim communities and health care providers. Most recently, he conducted research on the prevalence of breast cancer screenings in different Chicagoland Muslim communities, including South Side and suburban populations.

Across all of the communities he surveyed, he found that 37 percent of Muslim women had not had a mammogram in the last two years, which is the recommended guideline, according to Padela.

“The biggest predictor of not having a mammogram the past two years was if a woman felt she had undergone religious discrimination in a healthcare encounter,” he found.

The second facet of his work is an examination of how Islamic tradition engages with the ethical challenges of modern medicine. “The hope is to provide Muslim physicians and patients the grounding to be able to have dialogue over questions like ‘What is dignity?,’ ‘What does end-of life-care mean?’ all these sorts of large concepts,” he said.

Dr. Padela, however, believes he received the award not just for his fieldwork or scholarship, but for his vision. “I think they were interested in someone who can bridge that divide of academia and community, the academic and the traditional,” he said.

As a first step to building that bridge, he organized an interdisciplinary conference in 2011 at the University of Michigan called “Where Religion, Policy, and Bioethics Meet,” bringing together doctors, religious leaders, social scientists, and policy figures to share their perspectives on Islamic bioethics.

Taha Abdul-Basser, Muslim chaplain at Harvard University who moderated a bioethics panel at Padela’s conference and collaborated with him on a report that found Islamic definitions of brain-death were not scientifically up to date, spoke to the importance of Padela’s work.

“[The Islamic ethical tradition] may be particularly useful in the future of medicine and related disciplines as more powerful medical capabilities and technologies come online,” he said.

While his Islamic faith influences his work, Padela is also driven by the cultural realities he has witnessed.

“I was at medical school in New York City at 9/11 and, all of a sudden, my community was going to be maligned, and people didn’t understand the community,” he said.

“I felt that I should be one of the people who might be able to combat that, or give nuance, or be an exemplar.”

His upcoming work includes a national survey to uncover discrimination against Muslim medical professionals.