SASKATOON — The elimination of provincially funded spiritual care services in hospitals and care homes across Saskatchewan will seriously affect patient care and health outcomes, predicts Simon Lasair of the Canadian Association for Spiritual Care.
As part of the 2017 provincial budget announced March 22 by Finance Minister Kevin Doherty, “pastoral care services” were eliminated from provincial health care funding, amounting to some $1.5 million annually.
The decision does not take into account the invaluable and unique skills that spiritual care providers bring to a health care team, says Lasair, who serves as the national spiritual care association’s marketing, promotions and advocacy chair for the Saskatchewan region.
Stress, fear, and loss are commonly experienced by patients, families and staff in health care and long-term settings. Spiritual care providers address the spiritual dimensions of these difficult or life-altering situations, says Lasair.
“One of the implications of this decision is that there is actually going to be a greater burden of care upon the system, because professionals will not be there to provide the emotional and spiritual support needed,” he says.
Many don’t understand the distinction between pastoral care and spiritual care, Lasair points out.
Pastoral care consists of religious support and denominational care — often involving clergy or faith communities. “Spiritual care, on the other hand, is more generalized, providing emotional and spiritual support for health care clients and their families,” he describes, stressing the unique, specialized training of professional spiritual care providers in the health care system.
“We have a number of techniques that we use to facilitate clients in the telling of their stories, their experience of health care, their experience of their illness, (or) of being in long term care,” Lasair says. “By drawing attention to spiritual or sacred concerns within those stories, our hope is to alleviate emotional and spiritual suffering.”
As a professional practice, spiritual care requires technical skill and training that makes it distinct from other health care professions. “Most spiritual care practitioners in the province have achieved at least a master’s level in academic training, (and) all of us have had multiple units of specialized spiritual care training through the Canadian Association for Spiritual Care,” Lasair says, adding that this “enables us to understand some of the psycho-social issues that might be contributing to a person’s emotional or spiritual distress, and we are also specifically trained in how to theologically reflect on the experiences of illness or being in long-term care.”
While other health care professionals are trained to be sensitive to spiritual needs in providing care, they do not have the same specialized training, nor are they primarily focused on the spiritual dimension of care. “This training is unique among all the health care disciplines we work with, and I think it is also fair to say that even among community clergy this training is unique.”
Cutting professional spiritual care in hospital and long-term care settings also eliminates the partnership and support that spiritual care departments routinely provide to clergy and faith communities that are offering pastoral care to their members, points out Lasair. “Without spiritual care departments to oversee the dissemination of information, we are not entirely sure how community clergy are even going to know if their people are in hospital.”
It will leave many without any form of spiritual care at all. “The majority of clients we see in the health care system are people who have no religious background whatsoever — and although they may not understand what spiritual care is all about, these people have spiritual needs as well,” Lasair says. The elimination of spiritual care in hospitals and long-term care homes means that a significant segment of the population will no longer have their emotional or spiritual needs met at often-critical moments — and that affects health.
“There is an increasing body of research evidence that having some sort of professional spiritual care as part of the delivery of overall medical care actually improves medical outcomes. And so, I think one of the implications of this decision is that there is actually going to be a greater burden of care upon the system because there are not professionals there to provide the emotional and spiritual support needed.”
Accreditation Canada recommends that professional spiritual care be an integral part of health care teams. “There will now be a significant gap in most health care institutions in Saskatchewan, which will need to be remedied to ensure the highest standards of accreditation are maintained,” notes Lasair.
“To my knowledge, we are the only jurisdiction in Canada that has made a move like this at the provincial level.”
A letter addressed to Premier Brad Wall, the finance minister and the health minister has been written by spiritual care practitioners in the province, expressing grave concerns about the cuts, and asking for the funding to be restored.
“I think that as a profession we have a lot of stereotypes working against us,” suggests Lasair, noting that spiritual care providers are not simply “professional nice people who go in and say a prayer.”
This budget decision has created an opportunity to clear up misconceptions and focus attention on the fact that spiritual care practitioners provide specific and targeted relief to people who are in distress.
“Our services are desperately needed because of their uniqueness and because of the kinds of interventions that we can provide.”