GWish Receives $3 Million Grant to Launch 10-Year Campaign, Advancing Spiritual Care

The George Washington University Institute for Spirituality Health (GWish) received a $3 million grant from the John Templeton Foundation (JTF) in support of a multi-year project to develop a model for health care teams, including chaplains, to address the spiritual needs of patients. The grant will fund the first phase of a broader 10-year GWish initiative, Advancing Spiritual Care, designed to grow the field of spiritual care. In this phase, the first three years of the project, GWish will connect philanthropic and institutional partners to lay the groundwork for incorporating spiritual care into medicine.

“We are excited to announce the 2022 launch of Advancing Spiritual Care,” said Christina Puchalski, MD ’94, RESD ’97,founding director of GWish. “We envision an innovative model of global health care that recognizes spiritual health as an integral part of patient-centered care.

“We believe that attention to spiritual distress is a human right, as much as attention to other physical, emotional, and social concerns,” she added. “Spiritual health is critical across all ages and diagnoses, with particular importance for patients with serious or chronic illness.”

The initiative, a collaborative effort between GWish and longstanding partners City of Hope, led by Betty Ferrell, PhD, MSN, and the Association of Clinical Pastoral Education, led by Rev. Trace Haythorn, PhD, will work to increase clinician knowledge and competency to provide spiritual care to patients. Building upon two decades of research, education, and clinical best practices, GWish will employ many of the tools it has developed, such as the Interprofessional Spiritual Care Education Curriculum, or ISPEC, an evidence-based curriculum for teaching health care providers how to address their patients’ spiritual needs as a daily practice, to promote spiritual care as a health care discipline.

Clinician/chaplain pairs will be invited to devise and conduct demonstration projects consisting of interprofessional spiritual care clinical models that can be tested in multiple health settings. Findings from those projects will establish pathways for future research, grants, and a larger, more standardized implementation of interprofessional spiritual care.

“The field of spirituality and health has been emerging for more than two decades,” Puchalski said. “We can now accelerate that growth by conducting research demonstrating that spiritual care as part of a treatment plan can result in a positive impact on patient outcomes and well-being.”

In October 2022, GWish announced the recipients of five $100,000 grants in support of demonstration projects to develop and implement interprofessional spiritual care models that can be tested in multiple health settings. The grants are part of the GWish initiative, Advancing Spiritual Care in Everyday Clinical Practice.

“We are excited to announce the first cohort of GWish Scholars and their projects,” said Christina Puchalski, MD ’94, RESD ’97, founding director of GWish. “These demonstration projects will contribute to the knowledge and evidence base needed to include spiritual health as an essential part of whole person care.

“The emerging field of spiritual care lacks clinical models that can be validated and implemented in clinical settings. We expect the findings from these projects will create pathways for future research and clinical projects,” said Betty Ferrell, PhD, director and professor, Division of Nursing Research and Education, City of Hope National Medical Center.

Based on the generalist/specialist model of spiritual care and foundational to the five projects is the collaborative partnership between clinicians and chaplains: clinicians working on the “frontline” with patients to assess spiritual needs and identify spiritual distress, chaplains engaging with patients as spiritual care professionals on the healthcare team.

The Demonstration Project teams include:

  • Atlantic Health System (New Jersey), Stephen Faller, MDiv, and James Barr, MD
  • Baylor Scott and White Health (Texas), Daniel Roberts, MDiv, BCC, and Jeffrey Zsohar, MD
  • Erie County Medical Center Family Health Center (New York), Brent Anderson, MDiv, BCC and Sushama Thandla, MD
  • Mayo Clinic (Florida), Beba Tata, MDiv, MPH, BCC, and Kimberly Nelson, MSW, OSW-C, and
  • University of California, San Diego Health (California), Allison Kestenbaum, MA, BCC, and Amy Bellinghausen, MD

Demonstration project leaders, called GWish Scholars, will be part of a newly formed Learning Collaborative to share best practices among a growing network of spiritual care leaders. The projects represent a diversity of clinical settings and patient populations, while sharing a common focus on spiritual assessment for patients with serious and/or chronic illness.

“Research shows how important questions of meaning and purpose are to patients facing difficult diagnoses,” said Trace Haythorn, PhD, executive director/CEO of the Association of Clinical Pastoral Education (ACPE). “These demonstration projects help us begin to constructively move from addressing why this is important to what practices best meet the felt needs of patients.”

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