By Ray Barrett
Technology is changing how chaplains engage and support patients. The delivery of spiritual and religious care remotely, known as telechaplaincy, has significantly increased patient access to pastoral professionals. Many of us had our first experiences with telechaplaincy over the past 18 months of the COVID-19 pandemic, but the changes are here to stay.
By embracing technology, patients are now deciding how, and when, they want to receive services — with many opting to meet chaplains from the comfort of their own homes. Telechaplaincy provides safe, patient-centered care. Chaplains who use technology can now give patients with limitations and other mobility challenges a clear pathway to services.
Bringing your authentic presence to patient visits is one of the most important aspects of offering care. By choosing voice, text, or video conferencing, patients can feel empowered to customize their telechaplaincy experience. Telechaplaincy can also enhance the roles that chaplains are already performing in the workplace, such as navigating patients toward community spiritual cultural supports and sharing digital resources with patients.
Ethical codes and standards guide the work you do as a chaplain. The APC standards of practice, endorsed by all of the strategic partner organizations, include assessment; teamwork and collaboration; confidentiality; respect for diversity; and continuous quality improvement. However, without careful consideration of ethical codes, technology can lead to unethical situations. Examples include using non-secure technology or configuring technology in a way that creates greater disparities in the delivery of care.
Chaplains rely on confidentiality, honesty, and a safe environment to work effectively with patients, regardless of the meeting site. Since sensitive information is stored digitally, recommended safeguards and laws protect patients. As a telechaplain, privacy law and other legal requirements will govern your actions before, during, and after your meetings.
Your choice of technology may vary depending on the situation. For instance, a patient who is hard of hearing may benefit from a video conferencing call with a pair of sound-enhancing headphones. If the patient has limited mobility, the type, placement, and size of equipment should be considered.
For best outcomes, chaplains need to identify who is being served, how they will be served, and how to best prepare a patient for their visit. Technology brings new challenges, such as sharing secure meeting links and doing tech-checks on video conferencing equipment. Knowing how to use your system well will result in better meetings. Learn to set up the environment on your end, with an eye to lighting and audio conditions. Wear an outfit that enhances video clarity and orient your body posture to maximize your presence. It is also helpful to know how to share files or distribute online resources through your video conferencing system.
Even with the excitement of new technology, chaplains still need to screen patients for fit. Patients who have experienced an acute trauma may receive greater benefit from an in-person chaplain visit. Patients who lack adequate internet or devices, or a private location, also may not be a fit for telechaplaincy.
A crisis can happen either when chaplaincy is provided on-site or virtually. To mitigate an emergency, a concrete plan is considered a prerequisite for telehealth. This plan includes knowing the location of the patient and gathering emergency contact information— usually family members, close friends, or medical personnel — who can serve as onsite support. Telechaplains should also note any mental health warning signs that indicate the patient is a higher risk.
The Telehealth Certification Institute, LLC, offers a telechaplaincy training course that teaches each of the competencies outlined in this article in an accessible online format. Over 30,000 clinicians and healthcare organizations have been trained by the Telehealth Certification Institute since 2014.
Ray Barrett, instructor and CEO of the Telehealth Certification Institute, completed a four-year training program in CPE, in addition to graduate degrees in divinity and mental health counseling.