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Family members of ICU patients could benefit from more intentional chaplain support

Olga Kononenko
A new research study found people who received enhanced chaplain care experienced a clinically significant decline in anxiety and also reported greater spiritual well-being and satisfaction with spiritual care, compared to people who received usual care from a hospital chaplain

Family members in charge of making decisions when a loved one is in the intensive care unit — known as surrogate decision-makers — often face mental health issues like depression, anxiety or even post traumatic stress. A new study led by the Regenstrief Institute in Indianapolis shows that chaplain support can improve their mental health.

The study enrolled 128 people who had been designated as surrogate decision-makers for family members in the ICU, who were hospitalized in five intensive care units at an academic medical center in the Midwest.

Participants were randomly split into two groups. About half received standard chaplain services: They connected with a chaplain if they wanted to and met with them twice on average.

The other half was assigned to a chaplain, who contacted them on average four times during the patient’s stay and then followed up six to eight weeks after discharge. If a patient died during the study, the chaplain provided the family bereavement services within 48 hours of their death.

Researchers found people who receive the enhanced chaplain care experienced a clinically significant decline in anxiety and also reported greater spiritual well-being and satisfaction with spiritual care compared to participants receiving usual care from a hospital chaplain.

Making decisions for loved ones in the ICU takes a toll on thousands of people everyday, said Regenstrief Institute Research Scientist Dr. Alexia Torke, who led the study.

“I really think it's a public health crisis, how many, how much these experiences affect their mental health,” Torke said.

The new research suggests enhanced chaplain care could be a way for hospitals to help family members cope.

“We know that we can improve the emotional and spiritual well-being of the family members by having a chaplain reach out to them, set up visits, and do them on a regular basis that can really help the family members cope and recover from this very difficult experience,” Torke said.

Chaplains are clergy members that provide spiritual services in non-religious organizations including hospitals. They are trained to care for people of any religion or no religion at all.

Torke said even non-religious study participants benefited from the enhanced chaplain services “because the chaplain is able to listen deeply, and reflect back what the person's own religion or spirituality might be. And I think people feel very respected and very validated when a chaplain can do that.”

Torke hopes to do another larger, national study with a more diverse group of patients in the future.

This story comes from Side Effects Public Media — a health reporting collaboration based at WFYI in Indianapolis. Follow Darian on Twitter: @HelloImDarian.

Darian Benson is a reporter for Side Effects Public Media and WFYI in Indianapolis. She can be reached at