By Rev. Amy Strano
“My mother is turning 70 yrs old. She is fighting with cancer and is currently going through radiation. This has been the biggest fight of her life and I would like to request prayer for her. Our family is struggling and fighting along with her and ask that you pray for all of our well being as well. I thank you for giving me this chance to share and request prayer for the most wonderful loving mother any daughter could ask for.”
As chaplains, we have heard requests for prayers such as this by the bedside countless times. And yet as healthcare changes in this country, more and more people are being seen as outpatients. They and their families have the spiritual distress that comes with illness and the possibility of loss — but often without access to the professional chaplaincy care they need. This is true as well for those who are grieving.
Recognizing this unmet need, HealthCare Chaplaincy Network launched two new online initiatives this year: the websites ChaplainsOnHand.org and CantBelieveIHaveCancer.org. Both websites offer the best we know in spiritual care. We created these sites for everyone — whoever you are, whatever you believe, wherever you are.
HealthCare Chaplaincy Network chaplains come from many religious traditions, such as Catholic, Protestant, Jewish, Muslim, and Buddhist. We take a multifaith approach to spiritual care, understanding that regardless of religion or beliefs, in time of pain people often feel afraid, angry, or lonely. Many ask, “Why is this happening to me?” or “What now?” We wanted to create a way for them to be heard in those moments.
The response has been enthusiastic. From the mid-January 2014 launch through early October, there have been close to 90,000 website visits from 132 countries, with most from the U.S. One-third of visits have come from smartphones and tablets, which is higher than average for most nonprofits and reflects the work done to make the site user-friendly across device types.
Knowing the skill and compassion chaplains bring to the bedside, we wanted a way for people beyond hospitals to be able to directly connect with a professional chaplain. And so our websites include the HIPAA-compliant service “Chat with a Chaplain,” which lets people contact us via phone, video calls, and email requests. The toll-free number is 844-CHAPLAIN (844-242-7524) and it can be accessed at chaplainsonhand.org/cms/get-help.
So far, close to 2,000 people have contacted us directly. It is often spiritual first aid. Our chaplains listen, offer theological reflection and prayer, and help the caller connect with local resources. Sometimes that is within a local faith community, sometimes it’s with emotional support groups or community centers.
We are beginning to see differences between inpatient chaplaincy and outpatient telechaplaincy care. In a hospital, a chaplain may visit a patient multiple times. With “Chat with a Chaplain,” the chaplain often has only one encounter. A hospital chaplain has access to the patient’s name, medical information, and all the visual cues that come with an in-person visit. On the phone or email, the chaplain has very limited information — only what the person provides. The chaplain is also alone as a spiritual first responder, rather than as part of an interdisciplinary team. This has raised challenges, particularly in the area of mental health concerns. Our chaplains cannot request a psych consult, but have been trained in how to encourage callers to seek the help they need.
With “Chat with a Chaplain,” it is the person in spiritual need who initiates contact. They may not even fully understand what a chaplain is, but they are taking the initiative in the hope of seeking help, contact, and support. Often the call or email ends in appreciation.
As we develop this service, we see best practices beginning to emerge. It was vital that “Chat with a Chaplain” be HIPAA-compliant. Challenges included how to capture clinical encounter data safely and accurately and how to protect the client’s personal health information across all platforms. After much consultation, we determined we would encrypt the initial email requests we received before sending them to chaplains. We trained chaplains to respond to the spiritual pain rather than the health condition, and to chart encounters in our secure database.
HealthCare Chaplaincy Network is a national healthcare organization that helps people faced with illness, suffering and grief find comfort and meaning in hospitals, online, and elsewhere. Our mission is to advance the integration of spiritual care in healthcare through clinical practice, research, and education in order to improve patient experience, satisfaction, and outcomes.
Caring for the human spirit remains central in our administrative offices when we begin our weekly staff meetings by reading aloud prayer requests that have come in through ChaplainsOnHand.org and CantBelieveIHaveCancer.org. Holding them in prayer has transformed the office culture. Caring for the human spirit comes alive when strangers are entrusting us with their stories, their fears and their greatest hopes. Collectively, in silent reflection, we carry these with us throughout our day.
Rev. Amy Strano is manager of programs and services at HealthCare Chaplaincy Network and an ordained Unitarian Universalist minister.