Many COVID-19 patients faced the “widespread injustice of dying alone” as most hospital chaplains were “powerless” to provide them with bedside spiritual care and support, according to a new study.
Senior nurses and hospital chaplains who were interviewed in the research have backed calls for a national strategy to ensure spiritual care and support is provided in future major health disasters.
Middlesex University’s Research Centre for Transcultural Studies in Health, in a project funded by the Burdett Trust for Nursing, spoke with NHS chaplains and nurses about their experiences of spiritual care and support during the pandemic between March 2020 and July this year.
The report stated: “Available studies are indicating that spiritual care and support drastically diminished, due to the emergency burden of care of frontline healthcare workers, and the infection control precautions hampering the services of spiritual care units in hospitals.”
Chaplains often also lacked access to adequate PPE to be allowed onto wards and were often forced to provide prayers and speak with COVID-19 patients alongside family members via iPads and mobile phones, the research found.
“Spirituality is a crucial part of what makes us human and providing spiritual care and support to a dying person is the final and ultimate act of compassion," Irena Papadopoulos, a Professor of Transcultural Health & Nursing at Middlesex University.
Ken, a chaplain based in the North West, said: “A number of chaplains but especially many nurses found the huge number of deaths as a shocking phenomenon in itself, which was further exacerbated by the fact that several patients were dying without their relatives around.
“The emptiness and unusual silence in the hospital were very disturbing for staff, as they felt the patients’ isolated journey and had to cope with a widespread injustice of dying alone.”
Cat, a chaplain based in the South West, said: “I really began to feel as the weeks went by that the emotional and spiritual care of patients and families was hugely lacking.”
Norb, a chaplain in the East Midlands, said: “In some cases I think chaplains felt powerless and, to a degree, redundant in their role.”
Fin, a chaplain based in the North West, said: “During the initial immediate responses, we lacked resources for chaplains in terms of adequate safety.
“Whereas you could have PPE for people who can shave, for people with a beard, whether they're from Jewish, Muslim or Sikh traditions, adequate PPE was lacking and we had to source that ourselves, which was a shock to the system.”
The research report includes the blueprint for a national strategy for providing spiritual care and support in future major health disasters which would include training for health professionals.
Rosie, a senior nurse based in the South East, said: “Thus far the spirituality training for nurses has been very superficial, there is very little content on pain and suffering in the nursing curriculum.
“We must turn this experience in the COVID-19 pandemic into learning.”
Irena Papadopoulos, a Professor of Transcultural Health & Nursing at Middlesex University who led the research, said: “Spirituality is a crucial part of what makes us human and providing spiritual care and support to a dying person is the final and ultimate act of compassion.
“We were shocked to hear how so many nurses and chaplains felt either unable or completely unprepared to provide spiritual care to COVID-19 patients.
“Health authorities and government must ensure a comprehensive spiritual care and support strategy is in place before the next major health disaster so dying patients are given the compassion and love they deserve in their final hours.”
The study was co-authored by researchers Dr Runa Lazzarino, Dr Christina Koulouglioti, Sheila Ali, and Steve Wright.
Read the full report - Towards a National Strategy for the Provision of Spiritual Care and Support in Major Health Disasters.