Jonathan Pye, Peter Sedgwick and Andrew Todd (editors), Critical Care: Delivering Spiritual Care in Healthcare Contexts. Jessica Kingsley Publishers, 2015. 280 pp. $34.95
By Dan McGill
During the 2012 presidential campaign, Barack Obama’s healthcare reform received an emotional boost when the London Olympics commenced with a depiction of British history that specially highlighted their National Health Service, founded in 1948. While the British celebrate their publicly funded system, politicians in the United States threatened then and still do to dismantle “Obamacare.”
While large differences remain between British and American approaches to public health, Critical Care: Delivering Spiritual Care in Healthcare Contexts (containing chapters from 16 contributors, including the book’s three editors) shows that negotiating spiritual care in a public health system presents very similar challenges on both sides of the Atlantic.
The first part, “Constructing Spiritual Care,” makes clear that medicine has operated in a sacred space since time immemorial. Not just modern-day chaplains but all medical personnel, from modern doctors and nurses to ancient healers, have trod upon holy ground whenever they tended to the embodied person. But in a world where the disciplined and often mechanical practice of science has been so effective in treating many diseases, the sacred domain of the human can easily be profaned. For example, pain-control strategies often take scant regard for human suffering, dismissing it as a mechanical problem to be quickly remedied by painkillers or antidepressants.
Yet, as the second part, “Negotiating Spiritual Care in Public,” points out, even though spiritual care can provide an essential element in healthcare, negotiating how it does so presents real challenges. For example, public healthcare tends to operate out of a much more general theology than any one denomination or religion might possess. Politics, limited economic resources, and massive cultural changes are reshaping spiritual care inevitably in the public sphere.
The same political, economic, and cultural pressures, as well as the dominant rational/medical model of care, make spiritual care research necessary, not only to sustain the role of chaplains and other spiritual caregivers, but also to enlighten the path forward. The essays of the third section, “Researching Spiritual Care,” focus on research to make spiritual care visible in three particular areas: mental health; managing volunteers and their own beliefs; and critically observing spiritual care in an acute setting.
The final section highlights “Critical Issues in Spiritual Care” focusing in particular on suffering and the spiritual self; assisted suicide in the context of incurable mental illness; the effect of spiritual care upon mild cognitive impairment (related to dementia); and spiritual care in a children’s hospice.
Taken as a whole, this book presents the opportunity to reflect with spiritual care colleagues in Great Britain, who in turn are likewise reflecting on spiritual care in the United States.
Dan McGill, BCC, is staff chaplain at Dignity Health Marian Regional Medical Center in Santa Maria, CA.