Results of an investigation on the use of a telephone-based intervention for chaplains to provide religious/spiritual care to outpatients with cancer were promising, according to findings published in Supportive Care in Cancer.

Findings from a number of recent studies involving caregivers of patients with serious illnesses and military veterans with advanced medical conditions have shown that healthcare chaplains, defined as “individuals who work or volunteer within healthcare contexts to provide spiritual, religious, and emotional support to patients, caregivers, and staff,” can effectively deliver care using a telecommunications-based approach.

Nevertheless, research gaps regarding this type of approach, also known as telechaplaincy, include a dearth of information on its feasibility and acceptability as a point of first contact between the patient/caregiver and the chaplain, as well as its use within the outpatient setting for patients with cancer.

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For this reason, researchers at a community-based oncology center in the Southeastern United States conducted a study that included adult patients with cancer who indicated they were experiencing religious/spiritual concerns during a distress screening assessment. These patients were contacted by 1 of 2 participating chaplains by telephone within 4 to 12 days and following that telephone conversation, patients were requested to evaluate the acceptability of this intervention by completing a follow-up, anonymous survey to be sent to them by email within 2 days.

Of the 711 patients screened for a religious/spiritual concern, 204 (29%) had a positive result and were English speaking. All patients in the latter group were contacted by a chaplain, although only 124 (61%) patients spoke with the chaplain, and a religious/spiritual intervention was conducted with only 60 (49%) of these patients. Of the 124 patients who had a telephone-based interaction with a chaplain, 84 (68%) agreed to receive the follow-up survey, and 41 (48%) patients within the latter subgroup completed the survey.

A comparison of demographic characteristics of patients with and without a positive screen for a religious/spiritual concern, and those who completed the survey showed similar percentages based on sex and race across these 3 subgroups, with men and White patients representing approximately one-third and three-fourths of patients, respectively. Within the surveyed subgroup, 78% identified as Christian, and 15% were classified as spiritual but not religious. Of note, approximately 20% of patients had not received a cancer diagnosis at the time of the telephone interaction with a chaplain.

Key study findings among those patients who completed the survey were that the length of most telephone calls was less than 30 minutes. In addition, at least 90% of patients expressed a high level of satisfaction with the ability of the chaplain to make them feel comfortable, really listen to them, seem to care about them, and spend enough time with them. Furthermore, at least 80% of patients were very satisfied with the chaplain’s response to their spiritual and emotional concerns, and with the level of privacy during the call. However, approximately one-quarter of patients expressed at least a slight level of fear associated with receiving the call.

“These results suggest that screening for [religious/spiritual] needs using an electronic data system and using phone calls as the first point of contact for offering interventions is feasible at an outpatient cancer institute,” the study authors concluded.

They further added that these “findings also suggest that chaplaincy delivered by phone as the first contact is acceptable to patients seen in an outpatient oncology clinic.”


Sprik P, Keenan AJ, Boselli D, et al. Feasibility and acceptability of a telephone-based chaplaincy intervention in a large, outpatient oncology center [published online July 4, 2020]. Support Care Cancer.  doi: 10.1007/s00520-020-05598-4