Recently, I attended the yearly National Seminar given by the Center to Advance Palliative Care. I was honored to be a member of the faculty and on the planning committee. The attendance was over 900- up over 50% from a year ago- a tribute both to the growth of palliative care as a discipline and the respect with which CAPC is held in the palliative care space. This is the place palliative care nurses, doctors and administrators come to find out about best practice in the field from medical issues, to business models, to integration of palliative care into virtually every possible setting on the health care continuum. As Dr. Diane Meier, head of CAPC pointed out in her opening talk, palliative care has now gone from being an innovative practice to standard practice- at least in hospitals. It will soon be unusual for a hospital not to offer palliative care.

Maybe most importantly, palliative care is about caring for the whole person in all dimensions- including the spiritual. Every palliative model includes the mandate to attend to spiritual suffering. The Joint Commission’s advanced certification process in palliative care mandates a chaplain on the palliative team and will likely soon mandate that the chaplain have suitable training. Everywhere I went at this seminar, I heard spiritual care mentioned and included. This was a rare event in health care where no one looked quizzically when you said you were a chaplain, as if to ask “why are you here?”

Given this environment and context, the lack of chaplains was glaring. One of the Tweets from this event, posted by a physician, said simply “Where are the chaplains?” The attendance roles put the number of chaplains at 1% of the total attendance (i.e. about 10). Now, to be fair, the number of social workers wasn’t much greater, but this is still a problem. We as chaplains have rightly complained for years that we are not included- to the detriment of patient care. Now we have a setting that represents maybe the fastest growing discipline in health care and loves to have us, and we are not showing up. On top of that, this event is a phenomenal place for chaplains to learn about how we might add more value to the palliative care enterprise. So this is not just about giving. It is about getting at least as much as we give.

The barriers are mostly pretty obvious. This seminar is not cheap and going likely means not going to something else like the meeting of the chaplaincy body that certifies us. Many chaplains who cover palliative care do not do it full time so there are other responsibilities. Chaplaincy staffing is generally so tight that being aware for 3-4 days puts a burden on our colleagues and on the institution. We all know all of these barriers.

But there are opportunities. Several of the chaplains I did meet at CAPC came at the behest of and at the expense of their institutions who now highly value palliative care and understand how central spiritual care is to that endeavor. My guess is that more chaplains could make the case to their administrations that they should be funded for CAPC. My guess is that many administrations (and many palliative care chaplains) don’t appreciate the opportunities the CAPC National Seminar provides to further integrate spiritual care into palliative care. However, more and more hospitals are seeking Joint Commission accreditation in palliative care and are then trying to figure out how to get chaplaincy included in a way that will pass this process.

So I don’t have any magic answers. My only plea to chaplains involved in palliative care is when the CAPC notice comes around next year; don’t just reflexively press the “delete” button. And, by the way, I could have written this exact post with reference to the convention of the American Academy of Hospice & Palliative Medicine that will be in Philadelphia in February. Hope to see lots of my chaplain colleagues there.

The Rev. George Handzo, BCC, CSSBB
Handzo Consulting, LLC