6 February 2023

Hospital chaplains undervalued despite COVID burden

Hospital chaplain the Reverend Dennis Emery at work. Picture supplied: Reverend Dennis Emery

Jenan Taylor

21 June 2022

Hospital chaplains are still being viewed as non-essential even though they have supported more people than ever during COVID.

Spiritual care workers say they have been supporting patients and their families and an increasing number of health care staff in hospitals.

But according to the peak body for spiritual carers in the health sector, some places had a tendency to not value their contributions.

Spiritual Health Association chief executive officer Cheryl Holmes said this was especially the case in some regional areas, and in hospitals where models of spiritual care relied heavily on volunteers and external faith representatives.

Ms Holmes said in those settings many had not been seen as essential and so had been stood down.

She said where hospitals employed a spiritual care workforce who had been appointed by some of the major churches, the chaplains were integrated members of the spiritual care team.

Ms Holmes also said that in some places there were fewer than five or six chaplains in a spiritual care team.

“Some hospitals such as St. Vincent’s might have about 10 or 11 full time equivalent staff, and then you have some places that have one person,” Ms Holmes said.

She said in one Victorian hospital there was a CEO who had become particularly aware of the capacity for spiritual care to be supporting staff and had enabled that to happen.

Outside of Victoria, however, there was considerable variation around how spiritual care is thought about and delivered, Ms Holmes said.

Read more: Collingwood minister’s army chaplaincy work recognised

Anglican chaplain the Reverend Dennis Emery said he had been supporting an increasing number of staff as well as patients and the families of patients at the Austin Hospital.

Mr Emery said anxiety and stress levels had soared among medical staff, in particular, as restrictions continued for patients, visitors and staff inside hospitals.

Because of that staff had few opportunities to get away from their work or turn to families or their usual social networks, and were often highly traumatised, he said.

But researcher and Barwon Health pastoral care coordinator, the Reverend David Drummond said that in general although lots of facilities were constantly requesting support for patients, many chaplains were still largely regarded as non-essential.

“By non-essential it means that, clinically, their work was not essential to the ongoing care of the patient,” Mr Drummond said.

He said that where emotional support and end of life ritual was essential for faith reasons, liturgical and spiritual support providers usually had to negotiate access to patients.

Mr Drummond said health care staff usually changed their perception of chaplains if they had a built a relationship of trust with them.

He said there had been some recognition of the role of the spiritual workforce because there had been a shift from a clinical interventionist stance to more holistic person-centred care in hospitals in recent times. 

“For hospitals to offer person-centred care, it has to be more than just the treatment of the condition. People’s spiritual, emotional and religious domains also had to be looked after,” Mr Drummond said.

He said in some settings some chaplaincy work was being regarded more and more as an allied health discipline.

“That’s akin with the social workers and the Occupational Therapists, the people that offer scaffolding, if you like, in the support of the person. But it depends on the setting and on the individual chaplain and their passion, skills and training,” Mr Drummond said.

He said that he expected that over the next five years, spiritual care practitioners would be more closely aligned with allied health protocols, and because of COVID, more focused on the wider support of staff.

Ms Holmes said Spiritual Health Australia was encouraged by a recent national study from McCrindle Research on the spirituality, wellbeing and spiritual care in hospitals.

It showed that particularly young people wanted emotional and spiritual sources of strength and support in hospitals.

Ms Holmes said that meant they wanted a spiritual care workforce that was well qualified and skilled in terms of being able to listen deeply to stories.

She said the association had been working toward having spiritual care practitioners recognised as health professionals, so that they really would be seen as integral members of the multidisciplinary team.

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