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Chaplains now available by Skype for patients who don't know where to turn
One nonprofit chaplaincy organization is increasing people's access to spiritual counseling. - photo by Kelsey Dallas
Returning home after a hospital stay is a difficult transition for seriously ill patients, especially if they've made a connection with their hospital's chaplain. Now one organization wants to make receiving spiritual counseling from home as simple as logging in to Skype.

HealthCare Chaplaincy Network, a nonprofit that offers chaplaincy services in hospitals and online, has launched three web services in the past year, including sites targeted at veterans, caregivers and cancer sufferers. HCCN's programs help people seek answers to their spiritual concerns and make end-of-life care plans, according to Reuters.

"Response has reflected demand. attracted 200,000 unique visitors in its first four months online," Reuters reported. "Chaplains of diverse affiliations across the country respond to requests for support within 24 hours."

Chaplaincy experts said the web-based services are a valuable resource for patients who lack access to spiritual counseling in their community.

"After patients are no longer in the hospital, many find themselves without the spiritual support they had while hospitalized," Lisa Anderson-Shaw, the University of Illinois Hospital and Health System's director of clinical ethics, told Reuters. "Many rural areas may not have a church. Or, the closest church may be miles away, making homebound persons unable to find the spiritual care they wish to have."

Additionally, HCCN's new sites serve people who have spiritual concerns, but do not practice a particular faith. Nearly 23 percent of Americans are religiously unaffiliated, according to a May survey from Pew Research Center.

Online chaplaincy options are the latest development in the world of web-based mental health services, which has grown exponentially as the health care system has undergone a digital revolution.

Mental health care offered on video messaging services or smartphone apps has been lauded by many as an efficient way to ensure all people have access to counseling. And yet health researchers are still trying to determine if web-based therapy is as effective as traditional services, according to Tech Insider.

"There are concerns that telemental health programs don't sufficiently support patients and fail to give them a deep understanding of their conditions," Tech Insider's article noted. "Patients also must already have certain computer skills to receive care."

The Rev. Amy Strano, HCCN's director of programs and services, told Reuters that web-based spiritual counseling certainly has limitations, but described it as an innovative way to help isolated patients find the resources they need.

"Something is better than nothing," she said.