Most of this week I have been meeting with nurse leaders, academic, lecturers and students from across Europe as we once again explore what spiritual care is, and how we in practice care for the spiritual needs of our patients. In the UK this has recently become a hot topic with nurses suspended for praying with patients, and the National Secular Society has called for the NHS to stop funding all chaplaincy services.
And there is no doubt, as a recent Nursing Times survey has illustrated, that most nurses in Britain at least, find themselves poorly equipped to assess the spiritual needs of their patients and address the care needs that are subsequently identified. My father-in-law, a full time hospital chaplain, has commented on more than one occasion that most of the nurses in his hospital are actually embarrassed to even ask if a patient has a faith or belief system – even when they are also asking about bowel habits, diet and even questions about the patient's sexual health! Is religion and/or spirituality the last taboo? Have we found ourselves able to talk about sex, politics and now even death, but still "don't do God"?
One of the biggest question raised on our first day was simply how we translate research in to practice, how we train nurses to deliver effective spiritual care, and how we weave the spiritual in to all aspects of care rather than separating it out as something 'set apart'. Talking to one leading expert in the field who had just flown in from a Royal College of Nursing conference on spiritual care, it seems that there are voices emerging who are suggesting that nurses should play no role in any kind of spiritual care – and while the reasoning of the voices so far raised is clumsy and poorly thought through, there is no doubt that there will be opposition to restoring the spiritual as an aspect of nursing.
So, in bringing nurses the skills to address the spiritual needs of their patients, we have to start with nurses reflecting on their own spiritual nature and journey, whilst at the same time not forcing their beliefs on others. But that is only a start, because any practice of care must be based on good research and be held properly accountable within a professional framework, so it is more than just touchy feely stuff – it is qualitative and quantitative research, health policy and professional framework development, and training strategies. Yet, we have talked this over for two decades, and nurses still do not feel equipped in this area of practice.
Tomorrow we begin the conference proper, but out of today we are pulling together a network of researchers, practitioners and teachers who will work collaboratively on addressing some of these questions, and sharing more widely the experiences of those seeking to put good research in to good practice.