Chaplain on the chopping block

Lismore Mayor Jenny Dowell believes the money the North Coast Area Health Service will save if they remove the chaplaincy position at Lismore Base Hospital is not worth the human cost.

When Mayor Dowell heard the news on Tuesday that the chaplaincy was one of the jobs proposed in the next round of cuts, she immediately called hospital management to express her “deep concern”.

“I’m not just concerned for the patients, but the important support chaplains give to families in times of trauma and deep distress,” she said. “Chaplains provide a vital service to people in their time of need and to me it’s as important as providing good physical healthcare.”

The chaplaincy position is one of 100 jobs on the chopping block in the third round of cuts across the North Coast Area Health Service, which has to slash 400 jobs. Around 280 have already been cut.

The 100 proposed positions are now before the Health Services Union and North Coast Area Health Service executive officer Chris Crawford said there will be a consultation process before the final decision is made at the end of November.

“We want to focus as many of our resources as possible on direct clinical services and we want to keep the non-clinical side of our business as lean as possible,” he said. “There is no paid chaplain at Coffs Base or the Tweed hospital and if they can do it using voluntary chaplains and laity we’re saying why can’t Lismore Base do that too.”

However, Mayor Dowell felt volunteers were not necessarily an adequate solution.

“You can’t just replace a trained, experienced chaplain with a volunteer. The volunteers may augment the program, but you still need that trained professional,” she said. “In any large organisation there’s a risk that someone doing a tabletop review of where savings can be made can make suggested cuts that cause people to be outraged.

“I understand that another community, it may have been Port Macquarie, became very vocal when their chaplain was to be removed and I believe that decision was overturned.

“Councils understand the need for cost cutting in tight financial times, but there is a human cost to some cost cutting that is just unacceptable. I would certainly urge the hospital to reconsider this decision.”

Mayor Dowell was informed of the move by Lismore Base Hospital’s former chaplain, Peter Hill, who worked at the hospital for 11 years.

“I’m saddened that anyone could even contemplate it,” he said. “For people who work at the coalface, patients and families in distress I would think that role is something of great value and worth. It’s hard to know how removed people in administration are from the realities of what goes on. The North Coast Area Health Service has said they don’t want to cut clinical and frontline services, but what fits that description better than someone who visits patients at their bedside?”

Mr Hill said the chaplain is able to be paged at any time of the day or night to respond to emergencies and be there for families during times of grief and loss. The chaplain also trains local ministers in trauma chaplaincy so they are equipped to work with relatives of people who have been killed in car accidents and major traumas as well as being involved in palliative care work, issues of organ donation, the ethics committee and many other tasks.

Mr Hill said the removal of the chaplaincy position would be devastating, and said a lot of services the chaplain performs would simply fall over because there are not enough staff. He said often it was simply about having the time to devote to individuals.

“You can’t replicate what a chaplain does. Often a chaplain will just be there to listen to someone in their grief and their vulnerability and their pain,” Mr Hill said. “Sometimes words are not needed and people just require a presence; someone metaphorically to hold their hand as they face their anguish.”

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