Advancing Spiritual Care Through Research

Spiritual and Religious Coping of Medical Decision Makers for Hospitalized Older Adult Patients

Background: Critically ill adult patients who face medical decisions often delegate others to make important decisions. Those who are authorized to make such decisions are typically family members, friends, or legally authorized representatives, often referred to as surrogates. Making medical decisions on behalf of others produces emotional distress. Spirituality and/or religion provide significant assistance to cope with this distress. We designed this study to assess the role of surrogates’ spirituality and religion (S/R) coping resources during and after making medical decisions on behalf of critically ill patients. The study’s aim was to understand the role that S/R resources play in coping with the lived experiences and challenges of being a surrogate. Methods: Semistructured interviews were conducted with 46 surrogates by trained interviewers. These were audio-recorded and transcribed by research staff. Three investigators conducted a thematic analysis of the transcribed interviews. The codes from inter-rater findings were analyzed, and comparisons were made to ensure consistency. Results: The majority (67%) of surrogates endorsed belief in God and a personal practice of religion. Five themes emerged in this study. Personal prayer was demonstrated as the most important coping resource among surrogates who were religious. Trusting in God to be in charge or to provide guidance was also commonly expressed. Supportive relationships from family, friends, and coworkers emerged as a coping resource for all surrogates. Religious and nonreligious surrogates endorsed coping strategies such as painting, coloring, silent reflection, music, recreation, and reading. Some surrogates also shared personal experiences that were transformative as they cared for their ill patients. Conclusion: We conclude that surrogates use several S/R and other resources to cope with stress when making decisions for critically ill adult patients. The coping resources identified in this study may guide professional chaplains and other care providers to design a patient-based and outcome-oriented intervention to reduce surrogate stress, improve communication, increase patient and surrogate satisfaction, and increase surrogate integration in patient care. We recommend ensuring that surrogates have S/R resources actively engaged in making medical decisions. Chaplains should be involved before, during, and after medical decision making to assess and address surrogate stress. An interventional research-design project to assess the effect of spiritual care on surrogate coping before, during, and after medical decision making is also recommended.