The Chaplain Goes Virtual – by Melinda Beck
September 28th, 2015
(The following is taken from an article which appeared in the Wall Street Journal, 9/28/15 by Melinda Beck and found HERE). Melinda Beck writes:
The communication lines are modern, but the questions are often as old as mankind itself: Why am I in pain? Am I being punished? What happens after this life?
Mirroring the move to telemedicine among physicians, health-care chaplains are listening to such concerns and offering spiritual support increasingly through Skype, FaceTime and other high-tech connections.
Since launching its “Chat With a Chaplain” service last year, the HealthCare Chaplaincy Network, a New York-based nonprofit, has facilitated nearly 5,000 exchanges between its on-call chaplains and people all over the world.
The service is free to individual callers, but the chaplaincy network is also joining with hospitals to extend their own chaplain services to outpatients, discharged patients, family members and others, for a monthly fee, which can range from $1,000 to tens of thousands of dollars, depending on the hospital’s size and expected volume.
The chaplaincy network aims to fill a growing need: There is mounting evidence that spiritual support plays an important role in physical healing. Yet even critically ill patients are spending less time in hospitals where chaplains typically work. Patients may also be disconnected from formal religion and still face agonizing questions and debilitating fears.
Most academic medical systems and about 70% of community hospitals offer some chaplain services, according to the American Hospital Association. But their costs generally aren’t covered by Medicare or private insurance, so their resources are often stretched.
“Hospitals may have three chaplains covering 800 beds,” says the Rev. Eric Hall, the network’s president and chief executive. “Many of them would like to offer more services, but there are limitations.”
In the past six months, the network has signed agreements with 26 hospital systems to provide remote access to the networks’ on-call chaplains, facilitate virtual visits with the hospitals’ own chaplains and/or license the organization’s suite of spiritual TV programming.
The network’s call center has as many as 18 board-certified chaplains available to return requests for contact, for as much as 18 hours a day. (Most are going about their day jobs as well.) While many forms of video chatting are available, most interactions are by phone or email. “There is a lot of anonymity,” Mr. Hall says. “People can wear their bunny slippers.”
The chaplains say virtual visits have a different dynamic from face-to-face encounters, but often in positive ways.
“People can’t see me nodding or my face expressing empathy, so I have to articulate more,” says Maurice Appelbaum, an Orthodox rabbi who also works at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center in New York. He says that for patients, too, the lack of nonverbal cues means “there’s more being said — sometimes things that have never been said before — and that’s a powerful opportunity for healing.”
Like all board-certified chaplains, those who work with the chaplaincy network are trained to work with people of all faiths, or none. The group also has online resources tailored to people dealing with cancer, and to military veterans and their families. Combined, they have had more than 500,000 unique visitors in the past year.
Themes frequently mentioned include loss of a loved one, broken relationships, isolation and fear related to diagnosis. Common questions include “Why am I suffering?” and “Has God abandoned me?”
“Most people know that these questions are unanswerable. They want somebody to listen to them and affirm that, yes, this is unnerving,” says the Rev. George Handzo, the network’s director of health services, research and quality.
The demand for spiritual support, in a variety of forms, is likely to increase as hospitals add more palliative-care and hospice programs, often to patients in their homes.
“Most of the ministry that chaplains do is face to face, but there are certainly times when that’s not possible, due to distance or incarceration or a contagious disease, and technology is opening up doors for us,” says Margaret Atkinson, president-elect of the Association of Professional Chaplains.
“Wherever chaplains are, at the bedside or the other end of a video camera, it’s about the human connection,” she says. “That’s what we are there for.”
Ms. Beck is a health reporter and columnist for The Wall Street Journal in New York. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.