Morning, noon or night -- Mercy's e-chaplaincy program widens ministry
Deacon Ken Potzman clocks 11-hour workdays on average, but it's clear that what he does is more of a ministry than a job.
As director of pastoral services at Mercy Hospital St. Louis, Deacon Potzman spends most of his days meeting with patients and their families or employees who need the services of a chaplain. His pool of patients these days has grown wider through a new e-chaplaincy program at the Mercy-sponsored hospital.
E-chaplaincy allows for those in need of pastoral services an option to communicate requests via email or telephone. Requests are received around the clock by one of several specially trained chaplains. The idea has been touted as a convenient way to get in touch with a chaplain, and an alternative for those who might find it too difficult to meet face-to-face.
Deacon Potzman said the program isn't a professional counseling service, but allows those interested to seek out a chaplain for prayer, support and a listening ear. Topics range from relationship issues, spiritual questions, dealing with a poor diagnosis, addictions and more.
The program's roots go back to 2009, when Mercy board-certified chaplain Laura Law discovered the benefit of sending emails to parents of babies in the neonatal intensive care unit, to keep them up to date on the progress of their child and lend a listening ear. Because of a typically longer stay in the hospital, the service came as a relief to parents who often had to return to work, said Potzman. The service was expanded as a pilot to patients at Mercy hospitals in St. Louis and Washington. There are more than 150 Mercy locations in the St. Louis and Washington, Mo., that include hospitals, outpatient facilities and clinics.
Since March 2012, all 38,000 Mercy employees in the Mercy health system, which includes Arkansas, Kansas, Missouri and Oklahoma, have access to the program through an intranet site. This summer, the program was expanded to all patients and families in the Mercy system through its external website mercy.net and its patient portal, mymercy.net.
With the rise of social media outlets, e-chaplaincy has been a huge success, said Deacon Potzman, who noted that Mercy hospitals in St. Louis and Washington alone have received about 600 e-chaplaincy requests in 2011. On average, Deacon Potzman said he sees 10-12 requests come through a week. Chaplains who handle e-requests are trained above and beyond their normal chaplaincy certification, said Deacon Potzman. They must be able to comfortably use electronic media, concise communication skills and good analytical skills.
Julie Jones, Mercy executive director of mission and ministry, stressed that e-chaplaincy is an example of two humans interacting -- and not two computers. She explained that new way of communicating with patients addresses several points in the U.S. bishops' Ethical and Religious Directives for Catholic Health Care Services, which calls for a whole person approach to health care -- body and spirit.
"Since a Catholic health care institution is a community of healing and compassion, the care offered is not limited to the treatment of disease or bodily ailment but embraces the physical, psychological, social and spiritual dimensions of the human person," according to the document, which was last published in 2009.
Jones said that the e-chaplaincy program is another option to "reach patients where they are." She also noted that 95 percent of patients that come through Mercy are not in the hospital setting, and chaplains cannot always get to the clinics and other locations where Mercy provides services. "This is a great way to extend services to people not in a hospital," she said.
On a recent morning, Deacon Potzman received an email from a couple, with whom he had exchanged about a dozen emails. The family had experienced a split with their son, and were hoping for a reconciliation.
"They wrote and told me they had a dinner set up this weekend with their son," he said. They expressed their gratitude for the ongoing support, adding, "it has been extremely comforting for me to know you offer a kind, listening ear and have the knowledge to help others navigate these difficult situations," Deacon Potzman shared from the email. "We continue to pray for you also, that you are blessed in your work of sharing God's amazing love and grace for all of us."
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