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Treating people with chronic diseases accounts for most health care costs in the United States, and each year such illnesses factor in seven of 10 deaths. Two-thirds of adults discharged from hospitals have two or more chronic conditions.
Amid these patients’ long-term challenging medical needs, often overlooked are their spiritual and emotional needs. Assemblies of God endorsed U.S. missionary Chaplain James M. Austin serves as tele-chaplain for Mercy, a nonprofit healthcare system composed of 44 acute care and specialty hospitals in seven states.
To better attend to needs of patients who are by and large homebound, medical monitoring is done via computer from Mercy Virtual in the St. Louis suburb of Chesterfield, which opened in 2015. This pioneering, technology-empowered model lowers stress, risk of infection, and costs. Austin’s ministry to chronic patients throughout Mercy’s system takes place here.
“My job as a hospital chaplain is to make sure all their spiritual needs are being monitored as well,” says Austin, 48.
Austin’s journey to this innovative outreach began with 20 years as a church pastor, followed by seven years as a hospital chaplain. Four months ago, he began serving as Mercychaplain after the program’s founder, fellow endorsed AG U.S. missionary chaplain Art W. Maddock, became manager of Mercy’s pastoral care department in Rogers, Arkansas.
“Many say tele-chaplaincy is like the olden days when doctors came to homes to visit,” Maddock says, noting that patients have 24-hour numbers to connect with care providers.
As a Christian charity, Mercy welcomes “God discussions” when patients seek to find meaning and hope amid addressing deep spiritual and emotional concerns.
“Too much of the time, we wait until somebody is on their death bed and say, All right, are you ready to meet God? instead of walking along that journey with someone,” Austin says. That journey may include anticipatory grief about what’s about to happen, dealing with one’s own mortality, or questions such as Do I have my house in order? How do I cope with something that is not going to go away?
“I'm encouraged to find out how patients are doing spiritually — how they’re finding meaning, their thoughts about approaching the end,” he says. In addition to helping these patients suffering chronic illnesses, Austin also ministers to the doctors, nurses, and other staff treating these patients.
Austin compares his ministry now to when he served as a traditional hospital chaplain.
“We have the same values-based discussions, but it’s done in the comfort of the patient'shome,” he says. He often converses with patients more than an hour.
“No nurses, doctors, shots, needles, or alarms getting in the way of very important life-changing conversations,” Austin says. “In the hospital, you may just get 10 minutes.”
Patients also may make salvation decisions for Christ, as has happened during Austin’s tenure as Mercy Virtual’s chaplain.
“When people are trying to find meaning and purpose and they ask me to pray with them, I'm totally willing,” he says. “They lead the conversation. I'm not here to proselytize. Those types of conversations come up in a health-care system where we are expected to be people of faith.”