Cancer advocates, patients and caregivers are raising concerns over a recent decision by Alberta Health Services. AHS has removed a specialized spiritual care coordinator position at the Tom Baker Cancer Centre.
This role is non-denominational and provides spiritual support and guidance to cancer patients. The coordinator helps patients make difficult life and death decisions and has bed-side conversations about how to cope with a devastating diagnosis.
Surveys with Tom Baker’s own patients revealed it was one of the most important coping mechanisms throughout their journey.
Many are now left wondering why the decision was made to get rid of that one specialized position.
“These individuals are not optional extras or the window dressing of cancer care. They are absolutely integral,” Shane Sinclair said.
Sinclair speaks from experience. Not only did he once hold the position of the spiritual care coordinator at Tom Baker, he is a cancer care researcher. He is also the president of the Canadian Association of Psychosocial Oncology.
“This isn’t a reshuffle,” Sinclair said. “This is taking away an important card in that deck and removing it to say we can offload this service to the community or a broader team and this will provide a wider net of coverage. That goes counter to evidence that exists.”
The head of oncology and the medical director at Tom Baker defended the decision. Dr. Sunil Verma said the final decision was based on utilization, patient feedback and says patients can link back to faith leaders in their community should they need additional support.
“We have available six psychosocial oncologists, three psychiatrists and four social workers,” Verma said. “It’s part of their responsibility as being a psychosocial oncology professional – looking at the social aspect, quality of life, emotional and spiritual care.
“We felt it’s better to provide comprehensive care rather than being fragmented.”
Sinclair said he’s worried the spiritual care will fall by the wayside. He argues spiritual care providers have specific training.
“It doesn’t mean that we can actually expect these individuals who are overwhelmed with psychological and social distress of patients that this is something they can just pick up,” Sinclair said. “It’s akin to me being told, ‘we don’t need oncologists. We are going to replace them with family physicians.'”
Verma wouldn’t specifically say whether this decision was a financial one. The position pays an average salary between $60,000 to $80,000 a year.
Pat Murray is the partner of Jenn Birchall. Birchall was diagnosed with Stage 4 breast cancer almost seven years ago. He says the ongoing spiritual care they receive at the Tom Baker is critical.
“The dollar amounts are so small, so insignificant, but in return, there’s tremendous value.”
Murray feels it’s a mistake to remove the position.
“When people are sick, things go sideways and there needs to be something more we can hold on to,” Murray said. “Why take out something that makes a difference, a positive difference?”
Health Minister Sarah Hoffman provided a statement to Global News:
“Access to spiritual support can not only be crucial on a personal level to a patient, it can also have a meaningful effect on the patient’s recovery and well being. AHS has assured my office that this change will not affect access to these kinds of supports for patients at the Tom Baker Cancer Centre, and that anyone who wants spiritual guidance or comfort will get it. We will be following up with AHS to monitor the transition.”