Spiritual care is central to patient care

Somewhere along the line of my now long career, I became interested in learning more about the role of religion and spirituality in the care of patients needing palliative care. As other areas in palliative care got better and better, spiritual care remained little studied. Fortunately, since its origins with leaders such as Dame Cicely Saunders and Dr. Balfour Mount, inclusion of a person's spiritual needs has been a core part of the care provided by hospice as well as palliative care. Indeed, experience suggests that when spiritual care is present, patients and family caregivers alike seem more comfortable as they go through their difficult times.Spirituality, of course, is a very personal matter, but as doctors we ask our patients lots of personal questions when it is relevant to their case, such as information about their sex life. It is part of caring for the whole person. Clinicians may feel like they are crossing a boundary by raising the subject of religion or spirituality with their patients. Is it their place to raise the issue, or should they simply be prepared to answer questions from, and offer resources to, patients who raise the subject? Prayer does come up in our interactions with patients. We have the option to call upon the chaplain. The role of the clinician is assessment; so isn't it important then, if facing a crisis, to involve a chaplain or the patient's clergy if the person is in spiritual distress? I think so.Recently the HealthCare Chaplaincy Network sponsored six landmark studies on this issue. One of them, "Hospital Chaplaincy and Medical Outcomes at the End of Life," conducted by Tracy Balboni and her colleagues at the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute in Boston, focused on the presence and helpfulness of chaplaincy visits for patients with advanced cancer. The research showed how chaplain care influences patient well-being and decision-making for people facing serious illness. Over half (52.4 percent) of the 250 respondents reported not being visited by a chaplain. Of those patients who were visited by chaplains, 88 percent said the chaplaincy visit was helpful. Researchers also collected qualitative data in response to the question: "Please explain why your time with the chaplain was helpful or not helpful." Several patients said that the chaplain was "comforting," noting that the discussion, support and prayer with the chaplain were helpful. Though this data is still in the process of being collected, some preliminary conclusions indicate that though chaplain visits may not be as frequent as desired, when they do occur, they are generally helpful to patients.In several of the studies, the benefit of having chaplains available went beyond religious matters to human spirituality even for the non-religious. The implications are that chaplains can help with communication in the service of whole person care that integrates a person's spiritual resources with other resources in their well-being. Spiritual care is central to caring for patients. It should not be ancillary.Certainly not everyone who is dealing with cancer as a patient or as a survivor is in the hospital where they can meet with a chaplain. There is a new resource where you can find thoughtful and practical spiritual care information, resources and support provided by professional chaplains: ChaplainsOnHand.org. Besides the good content for anyone regardless of religion or beliefs, it enables you to chat with a chaplain by phone or email. Linda Emanuel is director of the Buehler Center on Aging, Health & Society at Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine and and the Buehler professor of Geriatric Medicine. She also holds the title of Senior Vice President for Research & Education, HealthCare Chaplaincy Network.