The Secular Medical Forum advocates equal access to healthcare and associated NHS services for all patients and NHS staff irrespective of their belief system or lack of one. The present system of hospital chaplaincy services leads to unequal care; many patients do not share the particular religion of the appointed chaplain. Whether or not chaplains offer their services to all, this is not an acceptable compromise for a large proportion of our diverse society who rightly expect and deserve the state to fund non-discriminatory services. Nowhere is this more important than where people are at their most vulnerable; in a hospital environment.
In 2009, figures obtained under Freedom of Information legislation revealed the total annual cost of chaplaincy services to the NHS in Great Britain to be upward of £35million. The vast majority of chaplains represent the various denominations of the Christian church.
The Secular Medical Forum is concerned at the lack of formal training afforded to chaplains. Nearly all hospital chaplains are appointed for their religious affiliation rather than for their counselling skills or knowledge of hospital procedure. Chaplains can be called on both by distressed relatives and by highly trained medical and nursing staff following traumatic events. At the very least, their training should be equal to that of the people requiring their services. Unskilled workers can cause harm by involving themselves in situations for which they lack the necessary expertise, however good their intentions.
The major religious bodies in the UK are some of the richest organisations in the country. For example, the Church of England has assets recently estimated at £6 billion. The Secular Medical Forum sees no reason why the religious bodies themselves should not pay for their own personnel to visit those patients who want some religious support whilst in hospital.
Each full-time hospital chaplain removed from a Trust budget would finance at least two nurses. The Secular Medical Forum is not alone in thinking that spending on nurses or other health care personnel would be a more appropriate way to spend limited NHS finances.
Alternatively, if patients feel that the pastoral support provided by chaplains is valuable, the Secular Medical Forum would support the development of non-religious pastoral support or hospital visiting schemes. Some trusts already provide “Bereavement Centres”. These centres can help families with the practicalities of dealing with the death of a relative, can offer a certain amount of emotional support, and may usefully signpost people to other sources of appropriate support outside the hospital.
The presence of overtly religious chaplains contributes to the lack of awareness among staff of the needs of the sizeable proportion of the population without a religion or with different religions.
The SMF would like to see an increased awareness of the needs and sensitivities of people of no faith by NHS staff.
Chaplains and other religious representatives are frequently asked to become members of clinical and research ethics committees. This may simply be because of their religious background rather than any particular expertise in medical ethics. The Secular Medical Forum feels that only people with specific ethical expertise should be members of such a committee and that there should be no discrimination in the selection process.