By David Lewellen
George Fitchett, one of the country’s leading researchers on spiritual care, gave the NACC conference a lighthearted primer on the uses of data in a field built on compassion.
“I love research,” said Fitchett, the director of research in the Department of Religion, Health, and Human Values at Rush University Medical Center in Chicago. “Is that like flossing every day?” But after the laughter stopped, he continued, “Research helps us answer: How do I know that the care I provided today was the best possible care I could give?” Most chaplains, he said, don’t need to (and shouldn’t) do research of their own, but all should be able to read a study critically.
Fitchett, an APC-certified chaplain and supervisor, has been among the pioneers of spiritual care research for more than two decades; he joked about getting training in epidemiology and then being asked to lead a department at Rush. Today, he said, “we are moving toward considering research a core component of what we do.”
But, he added, “I see research every day that I do not understand.” But once chaplains have mastered the basic learning curve, he said, they can ask colleagues for perspective, or call the authors of the study for more context. “Researchers love to provide explanations,” he said. “They’re lonely people.”
Fitchett ran through some basics of different types of evidence before presenting results of various studies on spiritual care and patient outcomes, such as the importance of spirituality and religion in the coping skills of patients with cancer or with mental illness. He illustrated results of studies with graphs and tables, and many in the audience pulled out their phones to take pictures.
He described factors measured in the model of the Personal Dignity Inventory, such as loss of role and loss of control, which could be described as spiritual pain. Screening tools can identify patients who exhibit those symptoms, and then direct chaplains to visit them.
Ultimately, Fitchett said, this kind of research might produce evidence-based answers to the perpetual question of how many chaplains a particular facility needs. He showed results from an Israeli study that showed that patients with prior experience of spiritual care were three times more likely to request to see a chaplain.
“Outcome language is still a different language for us,” he said, since chaplains have always concentrated on the process of helping a patient. “We need to learn to be bilingual.” But CPE programs need to teach research literacy, he said, and very soon, the first class of eight chaplains to enroll for a master’s degree in public health will be announced under the terms of the Templeton Foundation grant that he and Dr. Wendy Cadge are administering. He encouraged his audience to apply to be part of the next cohort.
During the question period, the topic of Healthcare Chaplaincy Network’s new certification program was raised. Fitchett said that he had been asked to participate in the project and declined. Although the idea is creative, he said, the lack of collaboration with the cognate groups is a strike against it.