The Patient is Dying, Please Call the Chaplain’: The Activities of Chaplains in One Medical Center’s Intensive Care Units
CONTEXT: Patients and families commonly experience spiritual stress during an intensive care unit (ICU) admission. Although most patients report that they want spiritual support, little is known about how these issues are addressed by hospital chaplains. OBJECTIVES: To describe the prevalence, timing, and nature of hospital chaplain encounters in ICUs. METHODS: This was a retrospective cross-sectional study of adult ICUs at an academic medical center. Measures included days from ICU admission to initial chaplain visit, days from chaplain visit to ICU death or discharge, hospital and ICU lengths of stay, severity of illness at ICU admission and chaplain visit, and chart documentation of chaplain communication with the ICU team. RESULTS: Of a total of 4169 ICU admissions over six months, 248 (5.9%) patients were seen by chaplains. Of the 246 patients who died in an ICU, 197 (80%) were seen by a chaplain. There was a median of two days from ICU admission to chaplain encounter and a median of one day from chaplain encounter to ICU discharge or death. Chaplains communicated with nurses after 141 encounters (56.9%) but with physicians after only 14 encounters (5.6%); there was no documented communication in 55 encounters (22%). CONCLUSION: In the ICUs at this tertiary medical center, chaplain visits are uncommon and generally occur just before death among ICU patients. Communication between chaplains and physicians is rare. Chaplaincy service is primarily reserved for dying patients and their family members rather than providing proactive spiritual support. These observations highlight the need to better understand challenges and barriers to optimal chaplain involvement in ICU patient care.