Spiritual Care at your Doctor’s Surgery?

Most of us turn to our doctor for help with our health many times during our lives. As people approaching their doctors, we may feel unwell in wide variety of ways and want to be considered as unique individuals - recognising that many factors combine to make us healthy or unhealthy. Wouldn’t it be natural to assume that our spiritual needs should be considered as part of this picture? Shouldn’t General Practice care include spiritual care?

Improving  Wellbeing

Much has been written about the importance of mental and emotional health, psychological wellbeing and meeting the needs of the human spirit. The Government’s mental health strategy, No health without mental health, describes mental wellbeing as “[a] positive state of mind and body, feeling safe and able to cope, with a sense of connection with people, communities and the wider environment.” It affects the lives of individuals, families, communities and societies, and influences individual behaviour, wider social cohesion, social inclusion and economic prosperity. [detail]. A growing amount of research has explored the benefits of positive psychological states and the NHS Choices website now promotes this evidence based ‘Five Steps to Mental Wellbeing’ approach for us all to consider (to Connect; Be Active; Keep Learning; Give to others; Take Notice).

Psychiatrists recognise the importance of spirituality.  It is stated by their Royal College that, “while there is no one agreed definition of spirituality, it is something that helps us find meaning and purpose in the things we value; it can bring hope in times of suffering and loss; it encourages us to seek the best relationship with ourselves, others and what lies beyond and it is something everyone can experience – part of being human. Spirituality often becomes more important in times of distress, emotional stress, physical and mental illness, loss, bereavement and the approach of death. Spirituality emphasises the healing of the person, not just the disease. It views life as a journey, where good and bad experiences can help people to learn, develop and mature”.

NHS commissioning guidance recognises that ‘spiritual awareness, practices and beliefs are associated with improved mental and physical health, as well as quality of life and recovery from mental illness’. Commissioning guidance for primary care [PDF] also states that mental health has physical, psychological, social and spiritual elements, and so care should be holistic *7. People who have long term health problems and incurable conditions should be offered healthcare which recognises their social, psychological and spiritual needs [Government - long term conditions].
However, how many of us find this kind of care at our doctor’s surgery?

Compassionate Presence

An elderly lady had just been found to have a cancer which was likely to end her life within a few months. Her doctor was discussing with her some of the many implications of this, including what it meant to her to be facing the end of her life. The importance of spiritual care and profound impact that spirituality can have on healthcare was brought into focus during the conversation when she said, “At the end of the day, doctor, the inner journey is the only journey that really matters”.

Modern healthcare can bring so much benefit to people, but it is in danger of losing sight of the individual, and the ‘inner journey’ as it focuses on the details of diseases. Resisting this tendency and ensuring that healthcare offers a compassionate presence to people who are suffering, requires deliberate effort.

One solution to this challenge has been found by having additional healthcare personnel. For many years, some GP surgeries have been giving people the opportunity to see a chaplain who is part of the primary healthcare team. People attending the surgery can chose to see the chaplain or may be referred by a doctor, nurse or counsellor. These people often want the time and privacy to talk about personal issues which are adversely affecting their health and wellbeing. Often there is some significant change or loss that they are struggling to come to terms with, or factors which are making them consider what gives their lives meaning and significance. The experience of being truly listened to, can itself be transformative. For some this may lead onto specific counselling or to further discussion about personal faith.

People who have taken the opportunity to see the chaplain have later looked back and said things like:
“I want to thank you for the help I have had here, and the chaplaincy thing you have here is a really good idea. My life has been virtually transformed”.
“I am forever indebted to the Medical Centre for being the ‘touch paper’ that rekindled my faith and love for God. My physical health is by all medical accounts a miracle!”

Having a chaplain in the surgery has been described in Scotland and written about in “Honouring Personhood in Patients: the added value of chaplaincy in General Practice” . In recent years ‘Chaplains for Wellbeing’ have been part of an award winning ‘primary care approach to mental health and wellbeing’ in the West Midlands. The NHS Confederation has published a report on this work, not only because it improves the quality of the lives of people who are cared for in this way, but also because it reduces the cost of healthcare! The report states that “Chaplains for Wellbeing address the spiritual and/ or religious needs which influence health, in order to: encourage faith and hope; restore significance and worth; develop a sense of belonging; provide support and promote healthy life choices.”

You can make a difference

Intuitively we all know that it makes sense to care for people in ways that empower them to find their own inner resources and to connect meaningfully with that which is beyond themselves.  The  NHS is more committed than ever to letting people’s opinions about the health care they want shape the services that are delivered [report - PDF]. We can all be involved in this process by contacting the person who is responsible for Patient and Public Engagement in your area. There is also a new national network of people and organisations which seek to promote ‘Christian values and practice in healthcare’: the Whole Person Health Network. They are working with the NHS in promoting new ways of delivering spiritual care in General Practice [whole person healthcare network].

See more about whole person healthcare: http://www.wholecare.org/index.html
whole person logo

Ross Bryson, 23/06/2013
More Articles
comments powered by Disqus