Bishop of Carlisle praises work of chaplains and volunteers in end of life care

On 22nd October 2015 Lord Farmer asked Her Majesty’s Government, “in the light of the Parliamentary and Health Service Ombudsman’s report Dying Without Dignity, what steps they are taking to ensure that everyone who needs it has access to good palliative care and a level of social care that ensures the end of life is valued.” The Bishop of Carlisle, Rt Revd James Newcome, spoke in the debate, praising the work of chaplains and volunteers in delivering end of life care. The Bishop of Rochester also spoke in the debate. 

Carlisle Moses RoomThe Lord Bishop of Carlisle:  My Lords, today’s debate, for which I am also most grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Farmer, has prompted me to take a fresh look at some of the numerous documents on palliative care that have been produced over the past two years, including of course the ombudsman’s report, Dying Without Dignity. As I read the documents, I was struck and impressed by their general agreement that palliative care at the end of life involves more than simply the relief of physical pain, crucial though of course that is. Suffering is not always the same as pain and it is often more difficult to ease, which is why the word “holistic” is often used to describe the kind of care that is needed. I cite as an example the NICE quality standard which is regarded by NHS England as,

“a comprehensive picture of what high quality end of life care should look like”.

In particular, as we have been reminded by the noble Lord, Lord Farmer, reference is made to spiritual and religious support not only for patients but for relatives, carers and staff. Such support is an essential element in end of life care. Religious needs are those experienced by people with specific beliefs, such as Christian, Jewish or Muslim. Spiritual needs are more generic; they are experienced by everyone regardless of belief, and since the early 1990s there has been a growing recognition of the importance of spirituality in palliative care, not least in most of our hospices.

So, at a time when some are questioning the need for healthcare chaplains, I suggest that recent reports actually make a compelling case for their retention. Their special training and expertise equip them to offer compassionate spiritual care to everyone, as well as religious care to those who need it; and “everyone” includes relatives and staff. Compassion is something of a buzzword in the NHS these days, and it has very close links with spirituality. For that to be effective, though, it is essential that chaplains should be included in end of life plans for patients and are treated as full members of multidisciplinary care teams. In many trusts that is already regarded as standard practice. Last week, for instance, I was talking with a palliative consultant who is the end of life lead in a large hospital in the north of England. She mentioned the electronic order sets which automatically trigger requests to the chaplaincy team and to the end of life nurse. That, she said, has made an amazing difference, and has meant that every patient dying in that trust has access to a chaplain. There are also a growing number of chaplains attached to health centres who are able to care for dying patients in the community, which, as the noble Lord, Lord Farmer, reminded us, is where most people want to die, but where at present 50% do not.

However, that is not a universal picture. As the ombudsman’s report indicates, the quality of end of life care is patchy, and that is true spiritually as well as physically. As we have been reminded, there will of course be a further opportunity to consider this tomorrow, but meanwhile I am very grateful for this opportunity to pay tribute to the contribution made by chaplains and their army of volunteers to end of life care in this country, not least by promoting compassion and respecting the dignity of everyone involved. So, may I ask the Minister whether he agrees that it is desperately important that we should take their work seriously if the holistic care we offer to all is not only to remain at the top of the league, but also to go on improving in the years to come?

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Department of Health (Lord Prior of Brampton) (Con): [extract] …The right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Carlisle raised the incredibly important work that chaplains do in hospitals, and I agree with him wholeheartedly. Not just chaplains but the whole mass of volunteers who work with them give comfort and support not only to relatives and those who are dying, but also to the staff in hospitals who have to work closely in very distressing circumstances.