One of the largest gaps in health care between two professionals trying to help the same sick person heal is the one that exists between the physician/clinician and the chaplain/member of the clergy. The gap does not usually result from animosity, but simply neglect of serious communication and integration with one another. This faith–health care gap is even wider outside of the hospital, where most of life and health happen.
Physicians will make their rounds, looking at the physical components of a patient’s illness and body, and ordering tests—but will rarely inquire about their mental and spiritual needs. When a patient inquires about the “why” of their illness, the medical profession answers in terms of risk factors, biochemical mechanisms, and genes. The clinician rarely asks if the “why” might be an existential question: “Why me?” or “How will this affect the meaning of my life?” This, in spite of the fact that 80 percent of patients want to discuss spiritual issues, have prayer and comfort of the mind or soul, explore the meaning of their illness, or see a chaplain.
Later in the day, the hospital chaplain or the community minister, priest, rabbi, or imam may make their rounds, inquiring about any spiritual introspections or reflections the patient might have, exploring the impact of stress from the illness or its treatment, and offering prayer, comfort, and social connection. Properly performed, the role of the chaplain is to assess and support the spiritual health of the patient and never to proselytize, coerce, or otherwise influence the religious beliefs of the patient or the patient’s family. The hospital chaplain might write a note in the chart.
But rarely will they write a note directly to the medical team, discuss the patient’s spiritual needs with others doing rounds, or expect their note even to be read. If a patient has a terminal illness, the chaplain might be called by the medical team, as if the soul matters only when the body is near its final “discharge.”
The doctor asks, “What’s the matter?” and the chaplain asks, “What matters?” Rarely do these two discussions connect, even when the answers to those questions influence each other. The person has been divided into parts—the body on one side and the soul on another—and we wonder why the suffering patient struggles to find whole-person and patient-centered care somewhere in between.
This is why there is sometimes great value in including a faith-based representative in a patient’s care team. There have been many instances of successful collaborations between those in faith communities and health care sectors.
Faith and Healthcare in Collaboration
At The Roundtable on Population Health Improvement at the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine’s 2018 workshop “Faith- Health Collaboration to Improve Population Health,” which explored the tension between faith and health care communities, people from across the country presented the successes and challenges they experienced in caring for the whole person in the context of a fragmented health care system. A variety of approaches were presented, including a faith-community-based residential substance abuse recovery program in Alabama that uses a “life plan” approach to connect a person’s health goals to their life goals, so the physical and the spiritual are explicitly connected. A model from the Memphis Congregational Health Network (CHN) was presented and relayed how the hospital chief executive officer partnered with several faith leaders in the community to leverage hundreds of congregations and their convening power to facilitate access to health care and address health-related social needs. The bonds between the health care and faith communities were both implicit and explicit, and the collaboration between the two groups allowed for the care of both the bodies and spirits of community members. Finally, a community health center board chair presented on how hierarchies of power were flattened at the University Muslim Medical Association Community Clinic in Los Angeles. This presentation illustrated how leadership can emerge at any level, especially when groups intentionally focus on mutually desired goals.
The wide variety of presented approaches to merging health care and faith showed that many solutions can be implemented, provided that the parties involved use the right tools.
Adapted from “Faith-Health Collaboration to Improve Community and Population Health” by Wayne B. Jonas, MD (Healing Works Foundation) and Rev. Maeba Jonas, MDiv (Johns Hopkins University), published by the National Academy of Medicine on August 12, 2019. You can read the full article here.
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