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Don’t forget the care in healthcare

Scientific advancements have revolutionised healthcare in Australia; people are living longer than ever before and treatment that once required hours of hands-on intervention can now be administered at the touch of button.

The benefits of an efficient healthcare system are clear but as the role of technology increases, there is growing concern that the spiritual aspects of care are being forgotten.

Traditionally, nursing was regarded as the ultimate compassionate career, attracting selfless candidates motivated by the desire to support and nurture others. In recent years, however, nurses have gained far greater responsibility; prescribing medication, interpreting test results and even performing minor surgery.

As the line between nursing and medicine continues to blur, it is crucial that patients aren't simply regarded as "cases" or problems that need to be fixed.

Illness often creates a feeling of fear and vulnerability in patients, and in many cases the need to be reassured and understood is as great as the need for treatment.

In her article "The role of spirituality in healthcare", Dr Christina Puchalaski of the George Washington School of Medicine, highlights the necessity for health professionals "to walk with people in the midst of their pain, to be partners with patients rather than experts dictating information".

This "partnering" approach to nursing is particularly pertinent for those working in areas such as aged and palliative care. Patients suffering from serious illness or those approaching the end of their life often experience overwhelmingly profound questions around the reasons for their illness or even the meaning of their life.

When the restoration of physical health is no longer an option, the only meaningful support to be offered is on a spiritual level - and it's at this point that unfortunately many health professionals' training falls drastically short.

Spiritual care is not easy, it can be very confronting and often forces us to address difficult questions about our own belief systems and be willing to take on new perspectives. Yet it doesn't require us to become spiritual counsellors or endorse a particular religion, this is unnecessary and in many cases inappropriate.

What a terminally ill patient and their family really need during this intense period is a support person who can sit with them and help them find meaning through their experience.

While compassion may be regarded by some as a "soft" skill, the reality is that ignoring the essential human aspects of patient care can rapidly become neglect.

In recent years, the UK National Health Service (NHS) was under the spotlight after a series of complaints about the standard of care in certain hospitals. This prompted the UK government to launch a three-year Compassion in Practice strategy where recruitment is based on values as well as technical skills.

Here in Australia, workforce development is one of the biggest challenges facing the health and aged care sectors and there is huge demand for nurses with practical skills in whole-person care.

The Australian Catholic University (ACU) recently launched an online portal called Healthcare Hub (healthcarehub.com.au) to help in this area. It offers continuing professional development programs and qualifications in progressive areas such as Healthcare Ethics and Spirituality in Healthcare.

Jo Grainger, a registered nurse and health ethicist at ACU, says training of this type is crucial to providing health workers with a practical and compassionate understanding of the critical issues that confront the profession on a near daily basis.

"Nurses are at the bedside 24/7 but are rarely engaged in the ethical deliberations about care delivery," she says.

"One of the reasons this occurs is because of the lack of ethical and spiritual language at degree level. ACU programs aim to give nurses a voice in these situations, to be the best possible advocate for patients, the profession but more importantly for themselves."

By Stacey Astley

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