Some Muslim women claim they are being denied the chance of pursuing their dream of a career in surgery as they are torn between their religious beliefs and NHS dress code policies.
A study looking at the experiences of Muslim women with NHS policies such as ‘Bare Below the Elbows’ and those concerning head coverings in surgical theatres suggests some are experiencing bullying and harassment as a result of their religious observance.
Some women have even revealed they have abandoned their dream of working in surgery or a hospital setting as a result of a lack of clarity and feeling uncomfortable by NHS dress codes.
The research carried out by the British Islamic Medical Association (BIMA) and The Bridge Institute, an organisation which aims to build inclusive societies, questioned Muslim women from around the UK working in healthcare and discovered barriers when it came to dress. It was co-authored by a microbiologist and expert in infection care.
Wearing a headscarf was felt to be significant to many of the Muslim female healthcare professionals in adhering to their religious dress code, but more than half – 52% – reported problems when trying to wear a headscarf in theatre. There is no national NHS guidance relating to the wearing of head coverings. In surgical theatres, the default head garment is a semi-transparent scrub cap.
However, guidance from the National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (NICE) recommend that fully disposable head coverings should be worn in theatre for all individuals
The guidance also states there are alternatives to headscarves that cover the head and neck that can be worn in theatre by individuals where it is required for religious purposes and that it is for individual trusts to ensure that they are available for their staff.
The NHS Bare Below the Elbow policy has also been a source of confusion for Muslim women in healthcare, with conflicting demands to roll up their sleeves and a lack of awareness of national guidance.
The NHS Uniform and Workwear document states it is good practice to “wear short-sleeved shirts/blouses and avoid wearing white coats when providing patient care”. The reason given is that “cuffs become heavily contaminated and are more likely to come into contact with patients.” However, the document itself states that there is no conclusive evidence that uniforms or other work clothes pose a significant hazard in terms of spreading infection.
Muslim women described being discouraged from pursuing acute medical and surgical careers and instead opting for primary care roles as a result of the pressures in complying with hospital dress codes.
Dr Emma Wiley, a microbiology registrar and former Healthcare Infection Society Fellow from University College London Hospitals NHS Foundation Trust, is one of the co-authors of the study.
She told HuffPost UK: “We had comments from Muslim women saying it had been their dream to go into surgery – some wanted a career in obstetrics or gynaecology.
“But they said concerns and experiences about the dress code in hospitals had made them move into general practice instead.
“Dress code is policed more rigorously in hospitals while GPs work independently in small teams and there are not the same issues around infection control.
“It was heartbreaking to read these comments from Muslim women deterred from going into surgery – particularly when there is a real drive to get more women into surgery.”