The NHS spends £29m on hospital chaplains providing “no clinical benefit” for a huge variation in costs, according to a report.
Data obtained by the National Secular Society from 227 trusts in England found savings of £18.5m a year could be made if all trusts brought their spending into line with those who spent the least.
The society argues this cash could be better spent on 1,000 nursing assistants or a new community hospital every year.
Using the Freedom of Information Act, analysts compared the amount spent on chaplains in 2009-10 with how well trusts performed on some quality indicators, including death rates.
They reported that those with the lowest spend on chaplaincy services were some of the best-performing hospitals.
The NSS concluded the NHS “wastes millions every year” on services that have no clinical benefit.
NSS executive director Keith Porteous-Wood said: “Taxpayers will be shocked to learn how much healthcare money is diverted into paying for chaplaincy services.
“The cash-strapped NHS should spend its money on frontline services.
“It was recently reported that the NHS is to lose 50,000 jobs, including doctors and nurses.
“This study shows that massive savings can be made immediately; with no impact on clinical care.
“At a time when the NHS is under financial pressure, every hospital will want to use this benchmarking information to bring their chaplaincy costs into line with the best in their field.
“The National Secular Society is not seeking to oust chaplains from hospitals, but their cost should not be borne by public funds, especially when clinical services for patients are being cut.
“We have proposed that chaplaincy services should be paid for through charitable trusts, supported by churches and their parishioners.
“If churches really support ‘the big society’, then they will stop siphoning off NHS cash to fund chaplains’ salaries.”
The Rev Dr Malcolm Brown, director of mission and public affairs for the Archbishops’ Council of the Church of England, said the NSS was “guilty of a laughable misuse of statistical information”.
He added: “It is widely accepted within the medical profession that healthcare involves looking after the whole person, not just the body.
“It is equally obvious that national quality ratings can only be used to measure the discrete criteria which they have been designed to measure.
“The role of hospital chaplains in a regime of holistic care is not in doubt among serious practitioners.”