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Health Care Chaplains’ Role Grows in Palliative Care

By Jamie Beachy, PhD, Certified ACPE Educator

Palliative care stands at the forefront of growing fields within health care. With a focus on the whole person, including the spiritual dimension of health, palliative care increases patient and provider satisfaction, provides equal or better symptom control, creates more discernment of and honoring of choices about quality of life, leads to fewer and less intensive hospital admissions in the last months of life, decreases anxiety and depression, supports less caregiver distress, and creates cost savings (Hughes & Smith, 2014).

Palliative care can be defined as patient- and family-centered approach to care that is provided throughout the continuum of illness for those with serious or chronic illness. Delivered by an interdisciplinary or transdisciplinary team, palliative care optimizes quality of life by anticipating, preventing, and treating suffering.

Chaplains’ Role Grows in Palliative Care

Chaplains have a unique opportunity to influence the development of the expanding field of palliative care. As more positions for palliative care chaplains continue to become available, it will be important for the field of professional spiritual care to provide certified chaplains who are trained as leaders well versed in a whole-person, palliative approach to care.

Institute Collaborated with National Leaders in Chaplaincy Education

Recognizing a need for quality education beyond Board of Chaplaincy Certification, Inc.® (BCCI) chaplaincy certification, the Association of Professional Chaplains and the California State University Shiley Institute for Palliative Care have collaborated in developing an online certificate course for chaplains who wish to train as clinical leaders in the field of palliative care. The collaborative group of clinicians, educators and course developers who authored the course share a common passion for promoting the spiritual dimension of palliative care as a key aspect of the patient’s overall wellbeing.

The Association of Professional Chaplains (APC®) curricular task force included palliative care chaplains from around the country who have come together to advise the CSU Institute’s development of the course material and pedagogy. As the subject matter expert who composed the course, my background in palliative care, clinical ethics, Association for Clinical Pastoral Education (ACPE) supervision, and PhD work in religious studies informs the direction of the course and ensures that an ethos of engaged interpersonal learning comes through in the online format.

Spiritual-Care Best Practices Are Backbone of Course

Essentials of Palliative Care Chaplaincy draws from current evidence-based practices and emphasizes the importance of research literacy. The chaplain’s role as a spiritual care provider to both the interdisciplinary staff and the institution, as well as the patient and loved ones, is emphasized throughout the course.

Current and emerging research woven throughout the course includes the important work of George Fitchett, Anna Lee Hisey Pierson, and colleagues. Their recent development of a palliative care assessment for spiritual concerns provides an important tool in the advancement of the field of spiritual care and one they hope will be adapted to other settings within chaplaincy. The course includes interviews with Dr. Fitchett and other leaders in spiritual and palliative care, so that students in the course will have access to innovative leaders who are contributing their creativity to the development of our field.

Chaplains as Leaders in their Organizations

Course content includes an emphasis on the leadership dimension of palliative care through engaging current material on medical ethics, moral resilience, organizational spirituality and quality improvement processes. Current research based clinical approaches to palliative care chaplaincy are explored.

The course takes into consideration the competencies for the BCCI Hospice and Palliative Care Specialty Certification, and presents material that will be helpful for those pursuing the advanced practice certification.

Online and Accessible for Anyone, Anywhere

The online format presents an opportunity for chaplains to expand their horizons beyond the in-person learning environment. As health care includes more online forums for engaging in care, spiritual care leaders will be required to translate the skills that make chaplaincy so vital – empathy, compassion, deep listening, connection and meaning-making—to the online world in order to stay relevant and reach those we seek to support.

The 64 hour, eight-week online continuing education course leads to a certificate in the Essentials of Palliative Care Chaplaincy. The course includes small group cohorts who will share cases with one another, a weekly journaling practice shared only with the instructor, and large group forums where students can share in engaged discussions and collaborative learning.

An Invitation to Prepare for the Future

As the field of palliative care continues to grow, chaplains have an opportunity to advocate for our profession through preparing ourselves to be current, research-literate, and clinically savvy leaders in the field. More information about the course content, the dates of the course, and the cost can be found at: or by calling the CSU Shiley Institute for Palliative Care at 760-750-4006.

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