Chaplains offer more than prayers: New study confirms impact on ICU families

by | Feb 15, 2023 | Religion

(RNS) — It’s hard to forget your first time in the ICU.Strangers obscured by masks and gowns, beds surrounded by wires, constant beeping — it can feel like you’ve stumbled into a warped, disorienting alternate universe.
It’s true for patients — and it’s true for their loved ones.
For decades, hospital chaplains have offered hope and solace to patients and family alike as they navigate the trauma of being in the intensive care unit. But the impact of those efforts is often intangible, hard to measure and generally anecdotal. 
But thanks to a new study of ICU patients’ family members and loved ones, data now confirms what many chaplains already know: Proactive, enhanced spiritual care leads to better spiritual and psychological outcomes.
Dr. Alexia Torke. Photo courtesy of Regenstrief Institute
“We wanted to improve the well-being of ICU family members because there’s so much distress that they face, and we were one of the very few studies that have been able to successfully do that,” said Dr. Alexia Torke, who led the study conducted by the Regenstrief Institute and Indiana University School of Medicine. 
The randomized, single-blind trial took place across an Indiana medical center’s five ICUs from August 2018 until November 2021. The 128 participants who completed the trial were surrogate decision-makers whose loved ones were ICU patients unable to make medical decisions.
The study found that surrogates who received intensive spiritual care had more spiritual well-being and satisfaction with spiritual care and were “less likely to have anxiety and spiritual distress compared to those in control group,” according to Torke, a research scientist at Indiana University Center for Aging Research. Surrogates in the intervention group were “three times more likely to have a clinically important reduction in anxiety,” according to the study.
When Paul Galchutt, a research chaplain at the University of Minnesota Medical Center, heard the trial’s results, he …

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