In praise of the unsung heroes of our hospitals
Yesterday was St Luke's Day and, in honour of this much-loved physician and Gospel writer, many churches will hold a Healthcare Sunday tomorrow.
This will provide an opportunity to focus on health and healing, and on healthcare institutions and their workers.
These include hospital chaplains who quietly bring comfort and hope to so many people in the course of their duties.
The Rev Paul Erskine, president of the Northern Ireland Healthcare Chaplains' Association (NIHCA), tells me that his colleagues visit tens of thousands of patients in hospitals every year to offer spiritual, religious and pastoral support, and that many who accept such support have little or no faith connection.
He says: "More people pass through hospitals than through churches. Some patients have a Christian faith and some do not. Some have doubts, and many have fears.
"The Christian understanding is that patients in hospitals or hospices are not just statistics or medical puzzles, but people with hopes and fears, and made in the image of God.
"Sometimes the chaplain's role is the ministry of the brief encounter. People are in hospital for a limited time, and they may never meet the chaplain again, but they often become aware of their human frailty, and they welcome a listening ear, and they appreciate prayer.
"Their families often appreciate support from chaplains, and so do staff who give skilled and dedicated service, and who work under pressure."
In Northern Ireland, the NIHCA offers support and training to healthcare chaplains, as well as providing a code of conduct and a spiritual care policy.
There are people, of course, who may not wish to accept help from a chaplain and that is a matter of personal choice; but from my experience, hospital chaplains are some of the unsung heroes in our complicated world of healthcare.
Sometimes, the rows over NHS funding and other issues, currently including 'gay' blood, create headlines that overlook much of the daily work that is taking place in hospitals and hospices at the grassroots level.
In the past few months, I have been an outpatient at the Royal and the Mater, and the experience has given me an insight into what goes on in our major hospitals, as well as a clean bill of health!
Sadly, at times, some very serious mistakes are made, and there is also overcrowding as well as long delays. If you are not a private patient, the NHS waiting lists in some areas of medicine are extremely frustrating, as I have found out.
But I have also found that once you are in the system and are being seen for treatment, the staff are almost without exception courteous and helpful.
This applies not only to consultants and other clinicians but also to nurses, radiographers, secretarial staff and many others, including those who have to deal with irate patients who are on particularly tiresome waiting lists.
Of course, there are exceptions, and some depressing stories of inefficiency, but I believe that overall the NHS staff deserve praise for carrying out their complex roles in often difficult situations.
In Northern Ireland, we do not always give credit where it is due, so I am doing this now. I have only one further point to make – I don't mind meeting any of the hospital staff socially, but as little as possible professionally!
Overall, however, St Luke would be proud of most of them, including the chaplains who bring the caring face of Christianity to where it is often most needed. Sometimes the good news is too good to be overlooked.