Doctors Order Chaplains for Surgeries

This was the headline of an article in “The Times”, 27 June 2019. It appears that GPs face problems that cannot be treated with medication. Some practices are recruiting people to minister to patients’ spiritual brokenness. The head of practice, Ross Bryson, at Karis Medical Centre, west Birmingham has persuaded his local health authority to fund a professional chaplain, to be based at his surgery. This is so that GPs at Karis, who encounter crisis’, have the option of referring their patient to their resident chaplain, so that spiritual needs can be addressed.

Dr Bryson is in the process of establishing a company to employ GP chaplains nationwide. This company would seek charitable funding and NHS contracts. He said, “There are factors in our humanity which are not just emotional: They are issues to do with meaning and belonging, connectedness, hope and being valued. They seem to matter in healthcare, when you stop to ask these questions”. The chaplain’s job is to listen to the patients stories and help them to address spiritual issues that could have an impact on their health.

Patients referred have included a widow suffering from depression and insomnia. She was helped to say goodbye to her late husband. Another example was a homeless alcoholic man, whose addiction drove him to a heart attack. He got free from his addiction and turned his life around, after the chaplain helped him to join a church.

The Royal College of General Practitioners has endorsed the chaplain concept. It’s chairwoman, Helen Stokes-Lampard, says that GPs should take into account religious and spiritual beliefs when making a diagnosis and planning treatment. However, even though surveys have found that increasing numbers of family doctors acknowledge the importance of spiritual care, they are unsure how to address the issue, because chaplaincy schemes like the one at Karis are unusual.

Alistair Appleby, a GP who conducted research last year into spiritual care, admitted he had found himself ill-equipped when patients brought their “existential problems” to his consulting room. “When I came across these situations I asked myself what did I know from medical literature that would help, and there wasn’t very much there”, he admitted. He believes there needs to be a sea-change in training for doctors; moving away from a “biochemistry” approach to seeing people as holistic, spiritual beings. John Swinton, a trained nurse, Church of Scotland minister and academic at the University of Aberdeen, agreed. “ The bottom line is that all of us need to have something for our sense of purpose and value. You care for someone body, mind and spirit. The danger is a highly mechanised healthcare service either downplays or overlooks this”.

Spiritual care in primary medicine remains fragmented, but Dr Bryson remains undeterred. “We are all overwhelmed, in general practice, with distressed people. And when we know there is someone who can be trusted to help with this person and walk alongside them, then I think we all want it”.

It has long been clear that the NHS is not adequately funded to offer satisfactory counselling services for mental illness. Even though we do have counsellors attached to many medical practices, we still rely too heavily on charitable institutions in this area. It is however encouraging to learn that the medical profession itself is realising that there is also a spiritual (or should I say “existential”) dimension to life.

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