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Using Research to Enhance Spiritual Care

$4.5 million in grants will help train hospital chaplains

A chaplain at Rush prays with a patient

By Benjamin Feldheim

When an array of medications and treatments failed to alleviate the severe pain of two cancer patients, the palliative care team at Rush University Medical Center tried a different form of care. They called on a Rush chaplain, who met with both patients and addressed concerns both patients shared about receiving forgiveness when they died.

“One said he had done ‘bad things,’” recalls palliative care nurse practitioner Laura Fosler, NP. “After addressing that guilt, in combination with addressing problems such as anxiety and depression that also were very much related to their spiritual struggles, their pain got better. Their physical pain diminished when we treated their emotional, psychological and spiritual pain.”

Even in an increasingly secular world, chaplains are needed in hospitals. Research has shown that many patients need the comfort they receive from religion and spirituality, and that patients who experience religious and spiritual struggle often fare worse than those who do not experience such a conflict.

Emphasis on research

Spiritual care isn’t solely a matter of faith, though. For chaplains to help the patients most in need of existential guidance — such as Fosler’s cancer patients — and to better support clinicians with patient care, they need to be able to study and to improve their efforts. Like any effort to improve health care, this effort requires that the chaplains understand research and, when possible, conduct research themselves.

To help hospital chaplains provide more effective pastoral care, the John Templeton Foundation has awarded two grants totaling $4.5 million to fund the Training Research-Literate Chaplains as Ambassadors for Spirituality and Health project. Named for its late founder, an investor and philanthropist, the foundation supports projects relating to questions of human purpose and ultimate reality. The foundation is based in West Conshohocken, Pennsylvania.

Staff from Rush and Brandeis University in Waltham, Massachusetts, will work together to better equip hospital chaplains to use research to strengthen their spiritual care for patients and their loved ones.

“We want to make sure that chaplains are spending their time with the people who need them the most and are providing the care that’s most effective. We also want to enable chaplains to then tell the story about the impact of that care in a way that their health care colleagues can understand and value,” says George Fitchett, DMin, PhD, professor and director of research in Rush’s Department of Religion, Health and Human Values

Partnership with Brandeis

Fitchett is serving as project co-leader along with Wendy Cadge, PhD, professor of sociology and chairperson of the Women’s, Gender and Sexuality Program at Brandeis. Fitchett and Cadge both bring combined decades of experience connecting religious and spiritual struggles with patient outcomes. Based on their work, hospitals across the country have adopted evidence-based guidelines to better integrate spiritual care and assessments into patient care.

The grants will fund 16 fellowships for board-certified chaplains to earn a two-year research-focused graduate degree in epidemiology, biostatistics or public health. Additionally, 70 clinical pastoral education residency programs will receive funding to add research literacy into their respective chaplaincy training curriculums.

Currently, only 12 percent of chaplain residency programs in the U.S. include research literacy. With the Templeton grants, that number will increase to 40 percent of these programs

The project also will help chaplains become better equipped to assist people of all religious and spiritual backgrounds and beliefs.

“Chaplains can really engage in an ongoing way with patients and family members to learn about their experience,” Cadge said. “This program is about ensuring chaplains develop into even stronger members of health care teams.”

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