Spiritual health care has always been an integral part of health care. As BC evolved into Canada’s most ethnically diverse province, this care has moved in tandem to support people, no matter what their personal faith or spiritual belief.
Apparently that’s not only good for the soul; it’s good for the body, too. Mounting evidence shows that when health care includes spiritual concerns, medical outcomes can improve.
Spiritual health care for all
Although Providence Health Care (PHC) is Catholic-faith based, the spiritual health care it provides knows no religious denomination. In fact, the very name of the program has changed over the years from Pastoral Care to Spiritual Health and Pastoral Care to better reflect how PHC’s patients and clients have changed. Staff are no longer exclusively pastoral chaplains but spiritual health practitioners who come from a variety of backgrounds. And spiritual care is provided at all sites – hospitals, long-term care facilities and clinics such as Crosstown.
“We reflect the diversity of our patients”
“We leave our own traditions outside of the conversation,” says Beth Burton, Director of Mission Services for PHC. “We reflect the diversity of our patients, residents, family members and staff as we support those from many faith traditions, and none – including Christian, Atheist, Agnostic, Aboriginal, Muslim, Jewish, Buddhist, Baha’i’, Sikh, Hindu and all others. Anyone who comes through our doors, we support.”
Support takes many forms, from a prayer to poetry
That support, she explains, could be a prayer or ritual delivered by a Catholic priest but also a conversation about life and the big questions surrounding illness, vulnerability, grief, and life review. It could be poetry, or meditation, or a focus group with art. It could be outside on the roof of St. Paul’s Hospital looking at the bees or flowers. It could be talking to someone about their grandchildren or pets.
“If there is a need for specific support outside of our team, we have great community partners — for example, if a patient is Jehovah’s Witness or Jewish — then we would reach out to those communities to support those patients, which they are happy to do,” Burton says.
Dietitians do their best to accommodate religious dietary requirements while other religious items are made available. For instance, there are Islamic prayer rugs in a quiet area, used daily.
And PHC is attentive to end-of-life protocols, she adds, such as vigils for Buddhists, and of course, Catholic last rites.
A strong focus on the Indigenous community
PHC is acutely attuned to its Indigenous patients, residents and family. It works with PHC’s Indigenous Health and Wellness Team to support spiritual needs. St. Paul’s provides an Indigenous sacred space along with another quiet space provided for meditation, reflection or prayer.
Crosstown Clinic has a dedicated spiritual health practitioner
At Crosstown, which provides medical heroin and other medical-grade opioids to vulnerable substance-use patients, Spiritual Health Practitioner Philip Murray spends two days a week helping those in need – a unique service, he says. He says a client recently lost a family member and he helped her grieve. “Most of health care is focused on trying to fix something,” he says. “But my role in that case was simply to be present with her in her grief.”
Candidates for the clinical pastoral educational program must have at least a master’s degree. Then they undertake classroom and practical work to become eligible for certification by the Canadian Association for Spiritual Care.
Dealing with burnout
Supporting patients and residents through illness, injury and loss can take an emotional toll on caregivers.
“There are many difficult situations that we walk through with people, especially in times of crisis,” Burton says. “It’s an honour to walk alongside a family in distress at one of their worst moments, and we do see some emotional impact, particularly if there have been multiple events within a few days when it can feel pretty heavy.
Self-care is important. It’s something we learn about in training, and something we must continually maintain awareness of, so that we don’t burn out over the months and years that we provide spiritual health care. “Difficult moments happen in health care every day. If we can be present and supportive in that situation, that’s where we want to be.”