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Chaplains are essential in health care

Opinion editor’s note: Star Tribune Opinion publishes a mix of national and local commentaries online and in print each day. To contribute, click here.


Working in health care for more than 20 years, I can say with unfortunate confidence that the soul of the profession is struggling. Hard decisions have had to be made, demands are increasing, patients are sicker, staff and patient distress is greater, and there are fewer people able to care for those in need.

Hearing the news of a near 50% reduction in spiritual care personnel in the M Health Fairview system, including two Muslim chaplains who support an ever-growing Somali Muslim population, I must advocate for those who cannot on how this will impact the medical staff, patients and their outcomes, and a community that is still recovering from many types of trauma (“Chaplain corps takes big hit at Fairview Health Services,” Business, Nov. 10).

An individual’s emotional, spiritual and mental health impacts healing in many ways. When these needs are not tended to, this can lead to increase in medical and psychological challenges, including hospitalizations, which also means increased costs. This also means that investments in whole-person care reduce costs and improves patient outcomes. (See “The Case for Whole-Person Integrative Care.”)

Among those who tend to these needs are a group of individuals that are a significant help to patients, families and medical staff. Known as chaplains, they are well-schooled in their culturally inclusive humanitarian and spiritual care skills. They dedicate their lives to being the underappreciated backbone of health care through their professional support to people in many forms. They listen, provide reassurance and, when it is requested, pray or offer uplifting words. They work alongside members of a patient’s care team to uphold the spiritual and cultural practices of all in their care.

I recognize that there are difficult decisions to be made by those in administration. However, this impacts everyone in M Health Fairview’s care. The solution is not on-call staff or community clergy, because not all have the same level of expertise, availability or ability — and what of those who have no one? I know leaders are tasked with much, but I beg that the values they espouse be lived out to the fullest. Especially if a medical facility truly wants to consider itself to be delivering whole-person care, as well as being diverse and prioritizing equality and inclusivity, I encourage ethical reflection on this decision, and ask that it be revisited for the sake of the vulnerable who come to our doors; for hospital workers and for the few left to do an impossible task that you have now abandoned them to do.

In a system where humanity can often get forgotten in the shuffle of the medical side of patient care and bureaucracy, chaplains are an essential part of the team. They cannot be replaced by overworked and underequipped community members or nurses already stretched thin. I ask for firm, yet charitable, words of challenge on behalf of your health care and all in health care within this community that served you well when the world was in pandemic crisis, as well as for future patients. I fear these layoffs may set a future terrible precedent for other health care systems to follow.

Do not settle for mediocre care. Each one of us is more than a physical body! Each human person is unique, valued and has a purpose, even in the midst of their suffering and illness — and all aspects of your needs should be addressed by those who are not spread thin. The human person, in their vulnerability, cries out at the bedside with questions that compel the human heart in the face of suffering: Why? What’s the purpose? How will I go on — should I go on? Not only are these cries for physical healing, but mental and spiritual healing as well. How can we expect true whole-person healing to take place if it is outsourced to those with limited availability?

The common thread with this type of care is its intimate, existential connection to caring for the human person and the role it serves in developing relationships for healing and bearing suffering. These are universal questions that cannot be answered by medicine and science, but must be guided, explored and supported by a diverse and dedicated spiritual care program.

May these words inspire a change of heart for the community in which I serve and that I love, and that I know is desperate to receive the best whole-person care possible.

Sydney March is an emergency room nurse and ethics champion at Abbott Northwestern Hospital.

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