By Fr. Joseph F. Mali
Albany Medical Center New York has begun a spiritual care rotation for medical students to help them provide more holistic care for their future patients.
The Spiritual Care Department participates in the Health Care and Society program, which is required of all students at Albany Medical College. In October 2020, a fourth-year medical student who was thrilled by a chaplain’s “enlightening commentary” sent us an email expressing interest in learning more about what chaplains do. She asked if she could join chaplains on their rounds during her elective time.
The Dean’s Office gave us parameters to meet, and we drafted a proposal and submitted a course description. The program was approved for two credits, and Spiritual Care Elective was added to the school course catalogue for fourth-year medical students.
The rotation is designed to help future doctors: (a) gain a deeper appreciation for spiritual care in the healing process; (b) understand the role of interfaith chaplains within the hospital setting; (c) learn how to better nurture spiritual health within the patient-physician relationship and among family members; (d) improve their listening skills in order to provide effective emotional support; and (e) pay more attention to the religion and spirituality of patients and their families.
Each year it is offered twice, in March and in October. We allow a maximum of three candidates per period to avoid overwhelming patients with crowds. The students’ first activity is spiritual care participation with interfaith chaplains. During this time, students provide compassionate spiritual and emotional support to people of faith and of no faith. They experience the various ways in which interfaith chaplains address the religious and spiritual needs of patients, families, and staff. They see firsthand how people seek comfort in faith and become more aware of the importance of religion and spirituality for healing the whole person.
While rounding with chaplains, students experience all the spiritual services that the Pastoral Care Department offers — prayers, baptism, Communion, Sacrament of the Sick, family meetings, end-of-life care, and staff support. After visits with patients and families, they gather in a room to debrief with chaplains. In their second week, if they are comfortable, under the guidance of a chaplain, they take the lead on visits with patients.
Since spiritual care is now research-driven, we have classes to impart the theory and practice of the profession. Monday through Friday, we begin our day with an hour of education based on the best research available in the field. Readings are assigned for group discussions. Topics include illness and disease, the role of spirituality and religion in wellness, spiritual care assessment tools, spiritual care of the nonreligious, and attending to one’s own spiritual needs.
Our Pastoral Care Department is accredited by the Association for Clinical Pastoral Education. We allow medical students to attend seminars with CPE candidates and sit in on verbatim presentations to appreciate the clinical method of “action, reflection, action.”
They also participate in simulation lab, a tool we use for training chaplains. Typically, a predetermined case is presented to the cohort, and based on the scenario, one of the chaplains provides emotional and spiritual care to a person trained to play a standardized patient, while others watch. After the interaction, the rest of the chaplains critique the care provided by their colleague. The medical students join in these sessions to see how we prepare CPE students, and both groups cherish this interaction as they bring new perspectives to each other.
At the end of the rotation, students are required to write a two- or three-page reflection paper, detailing the non-clinical sides of patients and families, describing how medicine and chaplaincy diverge, explaining the challenges they encountered (such as switching off their doctor brain when engaging patients), and discussing their plans for incorporating religion and spiritualty in their future practice as healthcare providers.
Based on feedback from all the chaplains, the director of the program provides a summary and advisement comments and awards final grades. Since we began the elective three years ago, thirteen medical students and one physician have taken the course. They left the program with spiritual care dear to their hearts.
Fr. Joseph F. Mali is an interfaith chaplain at Albany Medical Center, Albany, NY.