By Mary Heintzkill
In April, I had the privilege of attending the HealthCare Chaplaincy Network’s first annual conference, titled “Caring for the Human Spirit: Driving the Research Agenda for Spiritual Care in Health Care.” The conference presented both a challenge and a charge for chaplains to explore their discipline using research to tell the chaplain’s story better. From start to finish, I was deeply engaged; I was fascinated by the current research, intrigued by the new questions this research is raising, and enthused by how research in spiritual care will and already does affect the patient experience.
Current research is addressing many questions related to the chaplain’s role and contributions. A primary question that needs further exploration is: “What exactly does the chaplain do?” As our discipline evolves, we need more evidence-based practice. For the sake of the patient, it is no longer acceptable for a chaplain to show up and leave saying that something significant was done, while not being able to articulate what we did and why our presence was vital to the patient’s well-being. Patient-centered care demands that chaplains be able to articulate the unique contributions they make.
As new questions about the chaplain’s role arise, it is important to frame our work in a clinical context of assessment, diagnosis, intervention, and outcome. The chaplain must be able to assess the current spiritual state of the patient. Is the patient experiencing spiritual distress? If so, what is the diagnosis? In other words, what issue does the chaplain specifically need to address? Having determined that, the chaplain needs to intervene in order to better align the goals of the patient with the goals of the care team. Finally, what outcome was achieved, and how do the chaplain and the care team know? What is different for the patient because the chaplain provided an assessment, diagnosis, and intervention? How did the chaplain specifically contribute to the patient’s well-being?
In this context, the interdisciplinary team will be able to understand the chaplain’s role and work. The team will also be able to understand the invaluable contribution that chaplaincy makes to improve the care of the patient. Additionally, providing spiritual care within this framework will ensure the highest quality of care for the patients in the organizations where chaplains serve.
By utilizing this approach, chaplain research will be able to explore questions that will lead to greater clarification about what it is that chaplains do, why they do it, and what difference it makes. If we can do that, we can tell the story of how we contribute to greater quality of life for patients, family, and staff, and we can improve the care of the human spirit when the devastation occurs.
Mary Heintzkill, BCC, is director of spiritual care at Borgess Health in Kalamazoo, MI.