Using Spirituality to Enhance Palliative Care

Using Spirituality to Enhance Palliative Care

Research is beginning to reveal the importance of meeting spiritual needs as a part of palliative care that’s focused on improving quality of life for religious and non-religious patients with a serious illness. 

Facing a serious, long-term illness like cancer tests us in many ways. Mental stress, chronic pain, fatigue, weight gain, nausea—and that’s just the side effects from the treatment. Palliative care, a new medical specialty, is aimed at improving comfort and quality of life in every possible way to patients with serious, chronic and life-threatening illnesses. Supportive care addresses side effects specifically. 

In addition to physical side effects, palliative care also includes social, psychological and spiritual issues that arise during cancer diagnosis and treatment. As such, palliative care uses a multifaceted approach that incorporates a number of solutions provided by a team of specialists. Today, a chaplain (or spiritual leader) is often part of a patient’s palliative care team. 

In the last decade, more focus has been put on meeting the spiritual needs of patients with life-threatening diseases, because studies have shown in many cases these needs are not adequately addressed. 

The Role a Chaplain Can Play in Palliative Care

The benefits of prayer and the presence of a chaplain during palliative care have been studied extensively in recent years. Studies are finding that, for many people, addressing spiritual needs directly by talking with a chaplain and praying can be beneficial

Recently, the HealthCare Chaplaincy Network sponsored six landmark studies on this issue. Tracy Balboni and her colleagues at the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute in Boston conducted a study titled Hospital Chaplaincy and Medical Outcomes at the End of Life. It focused on the presence and helpfulness of chaplain visits for patients with advanced cancer.

The research showed how chaplain care influences wellbeing and decision-making for people facing serious illness. Over half (52.4%) of the 250 respondents reported not being visited by a chaplain. Of those patients who were visited by chaplains, 88% said the chaplain visit was helpful.

Researchers also collected qualitative data in response to the question: "Please explain why your time with the chaplain was helpful or not helpful." Several patients said the chaplain was "comforting" and noted the discussion, support and prayer with the chaplain were all helpful. This data indicates, though chaplain visits may not be frequent, they are generally helpful to patients when they do occur.

The studyImpact of Hospital-Based Chaplain Support on Decision-Making During Serious Illness in a Diverse Urban Palliative Care Population, found chaplain visits often weren’t focused on spirituality and religion. Of the 1,140 chaplain-patient encounters examined, more than half were about “practical matters.” Patients discussed concerns over family matters, work and their medical care among other non-spiritual topics. 

In several of these latest studies, the benefit of having access to chaplains went beyond religious matters to human spirituality. Both religious and non-religious study participants found their conversations with chaplains to be helpful. The implications are that chaplains can help with communication in the service of comprehensive palliative care. For some people, it can be a touchy subject at first, but meeting spiritual needs has proven to be beneficial in caring for cancer patients. 

The Clinical Practice Guidelines for Quality Palliative Care now emphasizes the importance of spiritual care. Prayer has long been considered a type of mindful meditation that can reduce stress and ease anxiety regardless of religious beliefs. Research has also shown praying with others can also be beneficial, which is a role chaplains can play in palliative care.  

Of course, not everyone who is dealing with cancer as a patient or as a survivor is in the hospital where they can readily meet with a chaplain. However, there are online resources where you can find thoughtful and practical spiritual care information, as well as support from professional chaplains. is one such resource with valuable content for anyone—regardless of religion or beliefs—and features that enable you to chat with a chaplain by phone or email.