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'How can we feel more confident offering spiritual care to those from different backgrounds?'

Martyn Skinner
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Sometimes, as a Christian healthcare chaplain, I feel unconfident offering spiritual care to people whose backgrounds are different to my own – and I sense that nurses can do too.

This year I have observed Muslim friends fasting from food and fluids during Ramadan between sunrise and sunset, which has been 18–20 hours daily. The importance of pre-Ramadan consultations between healthcare professionals and Muslims with diabetes has been highlighted for many years, so that plans for meeting both medical and spiritual needs can be made.

However, these conversations often do not take place because healthcare professionals feel out of their depth and may shy away from them.

A contrasting example of effective spiritual care that I like, however, was of staff simply asking a patient in an acute hospital if she was a Muslim. When she confirmed this, she was courteously informed that there was a prayer room that she could use if she would like to.

In turn she asked the nursing staff to remind her when the five daily prayer times came around and later over-flowed with gratitude as she talked about this care.

In central Scotland hospices, many people’s spiritual needs have been met well by ensuring the provision of foods that Sikh and Muslim patients often appreciate: Asian network TV; the facility to make video phone calls to family abroad; and appropriate prayer facilities.

These sorts of provisions remind us that people’s spiritual needs are not only religious but can also be about meaning and purpose; love and belonging; gratitude, peace and hope; death concerns and resolutions; appreciation of art and beauty; and ethical and moral support.

”I have found that asking each person about their preferences for care challenges stereotypes”

The religious and cultural guidelines that many trusts provide can help us to offer people quality individualised spiritual care. However, I think that it is extremely important to remember that such guidelines always describe possible ways in which someone may want to be cared for, rather than prescribing precise checklists of practical actions that we can follow.

I have found that asking each person about their preferences for care challenges stereotypes that I and others sometimes have.

For example, we may discover that some Hindus are willing to accept personal care from professionals of the other gender, if this enables them to be cared for at home. Or that people from Muslim, Sikh and Hindu backgrounds have mixed preferences, just like people from other religious and non-religious backgrounds do, concerning how many visitors they like to receive in hospital.

I think that we can feel disempowered from offering spiritual care when we think that we need to be religious or cultural experts to do so; this outlook seems to emphasise what we do not know.

However, when we focus instead on offering people high-quality, person-centred care, we are more likely to feel empowered to try to meet people’s spiritual needs – even if we have not come across them before.

Martyn Skinner is a healthcare chaplain at Northumberland, Tyne and Wear Foundation Trust

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