Health care has become a world of dizzying change as more and more people realize that the current system is not working for anyone. There are new regulatory models, new care delivery models, and new funding models, but no one has the silver bullet. Along with the increasing pace of change comes a flood of new concepts and terms to describe them, many of which are ill defined and themselves evolving.

Nowhere is health care changing more fundamentally than in how it regards the role of the patient in the process of care. Patient satisfaction has long been a standard metric for many health care institutions, but for many never rose above a “nice to have” next to the “must haves” of clinical effectiveness and financial viability. In fact, many thought patient satisfaction often got in the way of the other two goals because giving patients what will satisfy them was thought to cost money and slow down or even subvert the clinical process.

Then HCAHPS drove a change to “patient experience” – related to patient satisfaction but not the same. Experience is about how reliably a given process like pain control happens and satisfaction is about how happy the patient is with that process. And finally we have arrived at “patient engagement”- a subset of “patient experience” perhaps but maybe the biggest change of all. Fundamentally, patient engagement requires that we who provide care involve the patient as a full partner in the planning and carrying out of that care. This change would seem to mark the official death of medical paternalism. But, it certainly feels like “selling the farm” to many. How can good care result when we let those without training in the field have at least a vote in the treatment decisions and maybe even a veto? Certainly lots of people will make “bad” decisions.

To those of us who are familiar with the history of how authority has operated in western religion, this debate has to sound familiar. Arguably, the most far reaching change Martin Luther and other reformers brought about in western Christianity in the 16th century is the idea that every Christian can have their personal relationship with God and can independently decide what they believe. This change was implemented in part by translating the sacred text of Christianity into a language that each believer could read or at least understand. For the most part, the authority of the ordained religious leader remained as the expert on belief and practice but that role became much more advisory than prescriptive. The religious leader now had to convince the faithful that a certain belief or behavior was “right” rather than having the belief or practice followed just because the leader said so.

Modern professional health care chaplains have long been trained to operate in this advisory model. It has been for years against the codes of ethics and best practice in professional chaplaincy to tell someone what to believe or practice unless specifically asked for that advice. Patient engagement has been the standard of care. Those of us who have worked in this way for a long time are very comfortable letting the patient lead the conversation and reach their own conclusions about what their own religious or spiritual belief and practice should be even when they differ from our own and how that belief and practice can help them cope with their illness. In fact, this model of care seems to work better than dictating to the patient beliefs and behaviors which they then mostly don’t follow.

That experience of chaplaincy practice leads me to feel confident that true patient engagement of the kind professional chaplains have long practiced will in fact improve, not only the process, but the outcomes of health care. Many will resist as many have and still do resist this model of chaplaincy. However, I am convinced that professional chaplaincy can be a major facilitator of this necessary change and can help our patients and our health care colleagues embrace this new and strange but ultimately very beneficial model.

George Handzo, BCC, CSSBB
President, Handzo Consulting
Senior Consultant, HealthCare Chaplaincy