Promoting Research Literacy for Improved Patient Outcomes

Spotlight: Marilyn Barnes and Allison DeLaney

One of the best ways for Transforming Chaplaincy to help foster research literacy is to help chaplains become acquainted with one another and leaders in their fields. With that in mind, the Spotlight feature interviews one or more chaplains, educators, administrators / healthcare professionals, or researchers. These leaders are putting Transforming Chaplaincy to work in the world, and we hope their experience offers valuable insights for the entire Transforming Chaplaincy community. In this issue, we’re spotlighting Rev. Marilyn Barnes and Allison DeLaney, both from the first cohort of the original Transforming Chaplaincy program. Marilyn is Senior Staff Chaplain at Advocate Lutheran General Hospital; Allison is currently a full-time student at Virginia Commonwealth University.


Tell us about yourself. Where are you from, what education or training do you have, and how did you end up in chaplaincy?

Allison DeLaney

Allison: I’m the only child of Chinese-Jamaican immigrants, born in Plantation, Florida. I was raised by my mother, a registered nurse, and her mother “Japo” (which means “maternal grandmother” in Hakka Chinese). My interest in healthcare was inspired by my mom, but I chose a career in physical therapy because I didn’t like needles (and still don’t)! I graduated from physical therapy school at the University of Florida in 1999 and maintain my license as a physical therapist. When I was 23, I went to Chicago to do a year of volunteer service with a Catholic organization called Amate House. I lived in community with 12 other people and volunteered as a full-time physical therapist at an inner city rehab hospital. That experience ignited an interest in studying theology at Catholic Theological Union, where I earned a Master’s degree in Theology, concentrated on Spirituality and with a minor in Ethics, in 2004. My advisor wisely asked what I planned to do after graduation and mentioned CPE, which would allow me to unite my healthcare experience and theological training. I didn’t think it was a good idea but told him I would try one unit anyway. That turned out to be the fulfillment of my deepest wish: to find work where my gifts could be used for healing; it helped me become a better human being. I had a wonderful experience training as a resident at Loyola Hospital in Maywood, Illinois under supervisors Jerry Kaelin and Jan McCabe, as well as many staff chaplains. I earned board certification through NACC in 2006.

Marilyn: I am originally from the mile-high city of Denver, Colorado. I have a BS (Texas Southern University, Houston Texas) and MS (Southern University, Baton Rouge), in Computer Science, an MA in Pastoral Care and Counseling (Garrett Evangelical Theological Seminary), and I am currently a Masters of Public Health student (University of Illinois at Chicago), graduating in May 2018. I decided to stop running away from my calling and run toward it, believing chaplaincy was what I was called to do.


Why did you decide to pursue research literacy, and what do you think is the primary benefit that research literacy confers on chaplaincy?

Allison: My motivations for pursuing research literacy are a mix of anger, fear, and hope. Research literacy does not come easily to me, but with great effort and frustration! However, I see research as a critical vehicle for conversation and change in an evidence based healthcare culture. As a lone front-line chaplain, I felt an increased need to argue for policies and structures to support the spiritual care needs of staff, patients and families under my care. This was largely due to a shift in leadership priorities which placed a high value on productivity uninformed by quality of relationships. I felt inadequate to challenge those presuppositions and to develop meaningful ways to measure, quantify, and justify good patient/family/staff care. That experience inspired me to gain skills like research in order to translate and advocate for spiritual health as integral to good hospice care, bereavement care, and overall healthcare. Without this, I fear that resources for spiritual care and the profession of chaplaincy itself will become extinct. I am also motivated by the concern that spirituality is largely absent from the predominant conversations about how to improve healthcare. The barriers are many, but I see research as a necessary bridge to bring spiritual/religious needs into the consciousness of health care providers, administrators and policy makers. It has been a gift to receive the Transforming Chaplaincy Fellowship, as I wouldn’t have had the resources to pursue the research training on my own.

Marilyn: I believe there are challenges for the chaplaincy vocation being more evidence-based and being more integrated into the interdisciplinary team through our documented contributions to patient, family, and staff satisfaction. Instead of self-teaching and ad-hoc tutoring, this experience – being a Transforming Chaplaincy Fellow – provides me with guided and mentored instruction from experts in the fields of research, health care, spirituality, and religion which I in turn can share with others. I also wanted to expanded my research vocabulary which will provide me with the foundation for establishing ongoing research partnerships in public health, spirituality, and religion. I enjoy learning and sharing my learning with others. The opportunity to develop my research literacy, growing my knowledge and enhancing my practice based upon that knowledge is awesome! 


What are, in your opinion, the primary challenges to integrating research literacy into chaplaincy practice?

Allison: Speaking from my 8 years as a chaplain and bereavement coordinator at a small, non-medical hospice house, with little research exposure, I found it difficult (and sometimes still do) to put so much effort into understanding an article on spirituality research and then have no immediate, practical ways to integrate that research into practice. Another barrier is that research requires chaplains to “buy-in” to a different way of being with patients. Is there a value to administering quantitative surveys to measure patient needs when individual spiritual assessments are also being done? How do they inform one another practically? Other challenges include lack of support from the institutions chaplains work within, which sometimes requires chaplains to pursue research literacy entirely on their own.

Rev. Marilyn Barnes

Marilyn: I see three primary challenges for our vocation around research literacy: first is the willingness to step out of the current mindset of “research takes away my ability to be in the moment” or “evidence-based practice is limiting.” Our vocation cannot expand and be consistently integrated into an interdisciplinary team model it we don’t have a consistent method or approach. Secondly, across all of the chaplain organizations we need a consistent message of what it means to be research-informed, research literate, and research fluent. This begins with the training and education process and continues through continuing education. I believe having various levels of research engagement will encourage more chaplains to step out into the research pond. Last is the slow-moving progress of diversity of persons and ideas within chaplaincy research. Historically chaplaincy research has been through a Protestant Christian, white, middle-aged, male lens. With increased diversity of faith, ethnicity, sexual orientation, and gender the research of our vocation will be richer and more comprehensive.


How do you integrate research literacy into your own practice?

Allison: Currently, I do not work as a chaplain, but I wish I could go back in time and use the research skills I have gained and apply mixed methods research for the development and evaluation of a walking group bereavement program I helped create. What is currently energizing for me is the development of research questions around informal caregiving health that draw interest across disciplines and then using that excitement to network with people from different skill sets to create solutions. I’m interested in research as advocacy and community building.

Marilyn: I have passion for the humbling opportunity to be with people, being invited to share in their journey; I have passion also for our vocation, for moving it forward and the opportunity to be a part of that process. I truly believe that my ability to be with patients, families, and staff in the clinical setting informs my research and my research informs my clinical practice. Through my research with the development of the Chaplaincy Taxonomy, I became more intentional about the outcomes and interventions of the care I offered. Through my research literacy, I was better equipped to serve as a clinical mentor for CPE students and to guide them through research and the integration of it into their practice.


Take us 10 years into the future. What’s different about chaplaincy then as a result of research literacy becoming a standard competency?

Allison: I hope that the research literacy requirement can be embodied by chaplains in a healthy way – that it won’t just be a box to check off, but effectively improve the standard of care that we offer. It can be a step towards greater accountability to our healthcare colleagues and get chaplains off the “island” that other HC team members can put us on (for good or bad reasons) and onto common ground where we can demystify spiritual care and improve our health care coordination.

Marilyn: Wow, 10 years in the future … a cancer patient comes into an outpatient clinic visit. His treatments for the day include chemotherapy, blood work, a spiritual care check-in, and a case worker assessment. The chaplain, either on site or virtually, engages in a spiritual care encounter with this patient for 10 – 20 minutes. The chaplain has a documented spiritual care encounter care plan, using chaplain-normative language. After the encounter, the chaplain documents their spiritual care assessment and outcomes noting a follow-up when needed. The data entered is included in a database where it is periodically analyzed for trends in spiritual care assessment, interventions, and outcomes (including patient satisfaction and health outcomes). Finally, there is a billing code associated with the chaplain’s care.


We’re grateful to Marilyn and Allison for kicking off our Spotlight series.

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