A woman with newly-diagnosed colon cancer recalls being alone in her hospital room. She is scared about a pending surgery and uncertain about life after treatment. She is angry. And she is struggling with the question, “Why me?” She remains silent, reluctant to reveal any of her emotions and spiritual distress to her loved ones … to burden them.
This is the very type of situation in which a professional chaplain can help. Supporting individuals regardless of religion or beliefs, or no religion or beliefs, multi-faith professional chaplains are trained to listen, to be nonjudgmental, to tap into a person’s inner strengths, and to provide comfort and meaning. They help patients and their families navigate serious or life-threatening illness, end of life, and grief.
The value of spiritual care as a contributor to health and healing is increasingly being recognized. Yet, many more inpatients desire conversations about religion/spirituality than actually have them. Some may not know to request a chaplaincy visit or may not be offered one. While chaplains are increasingly engaged as members of palliative care teams, there are health care settings that lack chaplains, don’t fully integrate them into health care teams, or don’t have enough to see all those in need.
Now, many more of these conversations may take place, thanks to some new developments in the field of professional chaplaincy. Two panels of top multidisciplinary experts, convened by HealthCare Chaplaincy Network, have developed evidence-based indicators for determining the quality of spiritual care and evidence-based competencies for chaplains. These tools provide a framework for providing spiritual care and how to measure its outcomes—a buzzword that goes a long way in today’s health care environment.
For individuals and their families, the message is loud and clear: quality spiritual care counts. With these new tools in hand, administrators and chaplaincy departments will be looking at not only if spiritual care is provided, but how it is provided.
Focusing on supply and demand, one quality indicator looks at the ratio of professional spiritual care providers to the size and complexity of the hospital, hospice or other health care setting. Others assess how well chaplaincy services are communicated to patients, such as being given information about spiritual support services and the opportunity to discuss religious/spiritual concerns. Another considers the availability of dedicated sacred space for meditation, reflection and rituals.
As well, inclusiveness underpins several of the quality indicators, such as providing spiritual care in a culturally and linguistically appropriate manner, integrating persons’ values and beliefs into plans of care, and giving families the opportunity to discuss spiritual issues during goals of care conferences.
How does all of this help you and your loved ones?
- High-quality spiritual care. The documents outline specific quality indicators, and how chaplains can help their organizations meet these indicators and “effectively and reliably” produce quality spiritual care. They challenge health care settings to assess their current provision of spiritual care, set goals to strengthen spiritual support, and undertake quality improvement projects to obtain them.
- Further integration of chaplains on interdisciplinary teams. These tools hold the promise of raising the “respect factor” of chaplains in the eyes of other health care professionals, who have traditionally been guided by standardized tools. It gives them a better understanding of the role of chaplains. As chaplaincy becomes more known and more standardized, the greater the chance that these practitioners will be more deeply integrated into care teams and that a chaplaincy referral will be a part of your care plan. Having a chaplain on the health care team increases the likelihood you’ll receive whole-person care—body, mind and spirit.
- More chaplains to go around. By being able to demonstrate the contribution of spiritual care to quality health care and outcomes, health care settings can obtain the solid metrics to back up budgets to start or expand chaplaincy departments. With the value of any health care service increasingly determined by its quality, these tools can ultimately pave the way toward reimbursement of chaplaincy care—again, raising the possibility of increased chaplaincy staff.
- Better outcomes. Research studies increasingly show the importance of spiritual support in health care. There are links between chaplaincy visits and overall patient satisfaction, satisfaction with ICU experiences, and better quality of life.
A chaplain on a palliative care team once described part of her role this way: “We hear our patients’ voices and ask them important questions.” By asking important questions of health care settings, these new tools will help more people address their spiritual needs, and get their beliefs and values talked about and included in their care plans.
Rev. Eric J. Hall is president and CEO of HealthCare Chaplaincy Network, a global nonprofit organization whose mission is to advance the integration of spiritual care in health care through clinical practice, research and education. Its services include a website – Can’t Believe I Have Cancer – designed for people with cancer and their loved ones, that includes information, resources and counseling by professional chaplains via phone, email or video chat.