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Your Health, News | 15 days ago

Spiritual and Emotional Care for Cancer Patients Is Just a Phone Call Away

When you have cancer, there are days when getting out of bed and driving to an appointment are especially challenging. That’s why more providers are offering telehealth options for cancer patients, including telechaplaincy. For Suzanne Patrick, a patient with advanced breast cancer, receiving virtual spiritual care from the comfort of home made a real difference in her life. Her chaplain applied several best practices to help her feel supported and connected over the phone.

“After I would get off the phone with her, my mood would be great. It felt like something heavy was lifted off my shoulders. I felt completely different about my situation,” explained Suzanne Patrick, a 53-year-old mother of five.

For the past few years, Suzanne has been coping with stage 4 breast cancer. What has lifted her spirits in spite of her health challenges? She’s been relying on the support of spiritual care provided by Atrium Health Levine Cancer Institute.

Suzanne has been getting this spiritual and emotional support both in person and over the phone. Telechaplaincy has been especially helpful since her home is located about 45 minutes away from the hospital.

Petra Sprik, MDiv, MPH, BCC, chaplain manager, Levine Cancer Institute’s Department of Supportive Oncology“Some days you just don’t want to get out of bed or drive anywhere. It’s great because you can be in your pajamas, having a conversation about the Lord and feeling better about your situation,” she said. “It can really help you to never give up.”  

Suzanne’s chaplain, Petra Sprik, MDiv, MPH, BCC, chaplain manager, Levine Cancer Institute’s Department of Supportive Oncology, and her colleagues recently published the first nationwide study of telechaplaincy practice within the U.S. The study included a survey of about 700 participants and in-depth phone interviews with 36 chaplains.

“Going through cancer often brings on a spiritual struggle, especially right after the diagnosis,” explained Sprik. “I can provide religious or nonreligious support, depending on what’s meaningful to the patient. My goal is to meet the patient where they are in their journey and offer the spiritual or emotional support needed to complement their physical care.”

Keep reading to learn more about the benefits of telechaplaincy and best practices for providers. And hear how Sprik applied these best practices to support Suzanne on her cancer journey.  

What to expect

Similar to an in-person session, virtual chaplain care appointments can last from five to 90 minutes. A typical deep conversation takes about 30 minutes.

During the discussion, chaplains can provide the following:

  • Practices to help cope with illness and treatment, such as breathing and visualization
  • Access to rituals, such as prayer
  • Strategies for better communication with family and friends
  • Grief support
  • Crisis management
  • Connections to supportive resources
  • End-of-life support; assistance with advanced care and funeral planning

“There were times when I would be worried about my scans or numbers,” Suzanne said. “Petra was really big on taking things one day at a time, one week at a time. This really helped calm my anxious feelings.”

Benefits to patients        

Telechaplaincy benefits patients in the following ways:

Continuity of care. Telechaplaincy allows patients to receive care where they are comfortable and get support throughout their entire health care journey. Communicating by phone means that patients can stay connected to their chaplain even while they’re traveling or receiving care elsewhere.

Ease of care. “Petra made it easy from the beginning,” explained Suzanne. “She gave me her direct line and email address, making her very accessible. Her genuineness and compassion made it so easy to talk to her. She let me talk, and then she filled the spaces (silence) in between.”

Talking over the phone also provides a safe space for patients to communicate openly. “When you’re not looking someone in the eye, it can be easier to discuss certain struggles you’re facing,” Sprik said. “Plus, if you’re having trouble with a caregiver, the phone can give you a private place to talk away from the caregiver.”

Reach more patients. Telechaplaincy allows spiritual counselors the opportunity to reach more patients, including those who prefer to be at home. Telehealth enables chaplains to see more patients in one day, since they can jump into a conversation without the check-in and coordination required for in-person appointments. Partially due to the use of telehealth, Sprik has been able to reach out to almost double the number of patients over the past two years.

Feeling connected. Sprik is often surprised by the intimate conversations she can have with patients over the phone, since some are more comfortable talking from their home.

Sprik’s approach made Suzanne feel very connected during their phone sessions. “Because she got to know me, she would pray for my family or whatever was going on in my life,” Suzanne explained. “The support she provided was on a very personal level. She made me feel very comfortable, like I could talk about anything. It felt like I was talking to my best friend.”  

Best practices for chaplains

The study revealed that chaplains do not yet have broad national standards or training for telehealth. However, it highlighted several best practices that can help them provide superior care over the phone, including:

  • Use a team approach. Work as part of an interdisciplinary team, which may include tech support, oncologists and other complementary care providers.
  • Have a safety plan. Set up a safety plan for patients who identify themselves as suicidal or homicidal on the phone; include access to a social worker who is skilled at handling safety concerns.
  • Offer control. Give the patient as much control as possible; for example, let them choose the date and time for the appointment or when they’re ready to end the conversation.
  • Listen carefully. Listen deeply to the patient, paying attention to background noise, voice modulations and even silence. Pay attention to the vocal tone, which conveys emotions. Limit distractions during calls.
  • Extend access. Use telechaplaincy to extend access to patients, not replace in-person spiritual care.
  • Practice calling. Practice making calls with colleagues to build confidence and gain a better understanding of the process.

Quick referrals to complementary therapies

The Department of Supportive Oncology is focused on caring for the physical, social, psychological and spiritual well-being of each patient. “Our goal is to use a variety of experts and methods to treat the patient as a whole person,” Sprik explained.

Close collaboration within the department means that patients get the holistic care they need as quickly and efficiently as possible. “During a call, a patient may say something that reveals they would benefit from meeting with another integrative provider in our department,” said Sprik. “While we’re on the phone, I can refer them to the right provider to meet their needs. For example, patients may benefit from acupuncture, rehabilitation, nutritional support, massage or music therapy.”

Many other health care systems don’t have the environment to support quick, direct referrals for multiple complementary therapies.

Strengthening spiritual care

The telechaplaincy study concluded that spiritual telehealth has the “promise for improving spiritual care in various settings” if it’s thoughtfully integrated into a spiritual and emotional support program. “It’s important to remember that telechaplaincy can’t be the totality of how we deliver care,” concluded Sprik. “But if you use it right, it can strengthen care.”

Although some chaplains prefer in-person interaction, many of the chaplains interviewed said they could do the same things over the phone as they did in person. Telechaplaincy actually inspired some of them to get creative with their methods of offering spiritual rituals and support over the phone.

Additional research is needed to help improve and build telechaplaincy programs, which will include consistent training and standards. Sprik is working with the University of Zurich on creating a telechaplaincy training webinar for fall 2022.

Survivorship support

Suzanne is now in her fifth year of cancer survivorship. She credits her faith and the spiritual care she’s received at Levine Cancer Institute with helping her make it this far. While she’s in the process of relocating to her hometown in Ohio, she knows that spiritual support will be an important part of her ongoing care.

To patients considering telechaplaincy, she said: “Give it a try. I would highly recommend it to anyone. It’s made such a huge difference in my life.”

Learn more

To learn more, visit Atrium Health Levine Cancer Institute’s Department of Supportive Oncology.