What measurable difference do chaplains have on the lives of patients and residents living in hospitals and senior care facilities? In his wide-ranging survey of current research, George Fitchett affirmed the vital role of chaplains in health care, both in hospitals and senior home care.[i] His article highlighted several major areas of study:

What Chaplains Do. When meeting a chaplain walking in the halls and communities of our facilities, we might wonder, “What do they actually do all day?” One study, noted by Fitchett,  included at least 100 activities that chaplains self-reported they performed during the course of a week!  Admittedly, each weekly schedule is shaped by personal abilities and expertise as well as specific job descriptions germane to the location. Generally though, based upon both self-reporting as well as medical record entries of chaplains, they spend significant time visiting residents and patients. Their time is also drawn into planning and conducting religious services, arranging for visits from other religious personnel, supporting families and attending care conferences or other small team meetings.

Chaplains invest much of their time in one to one or small group visiting. During the actual visits, their time includes prayer and Scripture reading (72% of the visits); emotional support and listening (30% of the visits) and active listening (72% of the visits). A further and central observation is that chaplains are expected to chart their comments in the chosen platform used by their agency. However the pattern and consistency varied widely, some felt leery of posting private conversations on the “charts”.

How do chaplains determine who to visit? With so many patients or residents, chaplains make daily decisions about which person to visit. Research noted several factors that chaplains consult when determining who to visit, including: medical records (i.e. electronic or daily reports), referrals from medical team members such as nurses or health care aids, family requests and “simply being present on the units to see who needs assistance”. Understandably, each site has its own way of informing the chaplain about the current needs. Further research in this area would assist them in their work.

What Patients and Residents Valued from the Work of the Chaplain.
In a smaller but notably study of patients in hospitals, up to 70% of respondents expected and wanted a chaplain visit. However, in hospitals, less than 30% of patients get such a visit; although the numbers are understandably much higher in care facilities where resident chaplains work. In a study of over 8,000 cancer survivors and their families, over 65% of the respondents claimed that their faith had helped them through the crisis and the presence of the chaplain reinforced their beliefs and convictions. Chaplains and pastors to seniors support residents and patients in their beliefs; and sometimes assist them to revisit these beliefs during times of crisis or change. In another study of over 400 people with some mental illness diagnosis, the practices of prayer and Scripture reading helped 80% of these participants. A remarkable response and a reinforcement of the role of the chaplain!

In a major study including 1440 patients, the majority of respondents strongly agreed that the presence and work of the chaplain enabled them to recover more quickly and have fewer level of anxiety while in hospital. Residents in care homes as well as their families also report such levels of satisfaction. One nurse who interacted with a chaplain from a care home, visiting a resident in the hospital was surprised, “You actually come to the hospital!”

For those who struggle with their religious and spiritual beliefs during crisis (eg Why had God let this happen? Or “My church has forgotten me.”), the re-assuring presence of the chaplain enables them to speak honestly about these matters. In one study of 900 patients, a remarkable 83% of them wanted someone to talk with about their spiritual beliefs. The work of the chaplain enables people to remain connected with their faith and deep convictions, especially during the ageing process.

In summary: chaplains do make a difference. While Freud argued that religion produces neurosis and poor health, there is actually no empirical evidence to support his claim. In reality, the opposite is true: faith and deep spiritual convictions enable the person to walk through suffering and ageing with more confidence and comfort. The chaplain, especially in the care home, comes alongside to assure the residents of God’s presence and power through all the stages of life. Although their impact remains less scientifically demonstrable than direct medical interventions, chaplains do make a difference!

[i] Fitchett, George – Recent Progress in Chaplaincy Related Research (Journal of Pastoral Care and Counselling: 2017, Vol. 71 (3) 163-175.

Written by Dr. Daryl Busby