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Pastoral Care in Hospitals

Medically reviewed by Susan Kerrigan, MD and Marianne Madsen on February 6, 2023

Patients who are hospitalized–especially those with severe or terminal illnesses–may feel completely alone and isolated. If they’re lucky, they have family members or loved ones who visit them from time to time to cheer them up. But many patients don’t have anyone to lift their spirits. This is why most hospitals provide pastoral care to those in need. 


It’s known that those suffering from an illness have greater chances of recovery if they have a form of support. Family, friends, and community are all great emotional resources for patients. But some may not have access to these forms of support. Hospitals aim to provide the best care for their patients, which includes meeting their emotional and spiritual needs. Pastoral care is just an additional way to help speed up the healing process. So what exactly does pastoral care entail?

When hospitals offer pastoral care, it means that patients have access to a chaplain or religious figure. Chaplains can provide religious guidance to patients who need it. They are available for any type of spiritual counseling, including praying with patients; answering ethical, moral, or religious questions; providing rituals or sacraments such as baptisms or blessings; or just talking. If patients would prefer to speak with or confide in a religious figure from their local place of worship, chaplains can also arrange such things. 


When you think of a chaplain, you might imagine a Christian or Catholic priest. But hospital chaplains are not exclusively of the Christian faith. Most hospitals employ chaplains of all different faiths and traditions, so patients can talk to anyone that they feel the most comfortable with. Non-religious patients are also welcome to consult with chaplains who are trained to work with those of any faith or no particular faith. Family members of the sick can also talk with a chaplain for emotional support.

Many hospitals also have chapels, which are ways for patients to gather and support each other under the guidance of a religious figure. Chapels hold a variety of religious services, led by leaders of all different faiths. The UNC Medical Center in North Carolina, for example, has 5 different chapels, including one for children. Their spaces are open 7 days a week for 24 hours a day, providing constant support to patients whenever they may need it.

The job of a chaplain is not an easy one. Chaplains must be present in emotionally demanding situations, such as providing support to terminally ill patients in their final days. Acting as a counsellor to the patient’s family is also a challenging task. Chaplains even provide their services to hospital staff, including doctors, nurses, and other healthcare professionals. Luckily, hospitals employ a number of chaplains and other religious figures who work together to support patients and each other. 


Hospital chaplains help provide spiritual guidance to millions of people. If you know anyone who has ever been hospitalized and received ethical, moral or religious advice, you have a chaplain to thank for that.

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