Published: 27/05/2004, Volume II4, No. 5907 Page 9

Trust chief executives must ensure their organisations take patients' spiritual needs more seriously if they are to thrive in a choice-based NHS, the government's chief nurse has warned.

Chief nursing officer Sarah Mullally told delegates at the first national conference on multifaith chaplaincy that trust chiefs will have to show they are responding to patients' individual needs - whatever their cultural background - if they are to persuade them to opt for treatment at their hospital.

'[NHS chief executive Sir] Nigel Crisp and [health secretary] John Reid have made it clear that we need to focus our efforts on becoming more responsive to patient need.' she said. 'Better access and shorter waits are the main things that influence their decision [over treatment destination]. But ... once You have got those sorted, what patients crave is better information about their treatment, a more partner-like relationship with professionals, and to be treated like an individual.'

Ms Mullally, who is also the Department of Health's lead director on patient and public involvement, called on trusts to develop multi-faith chaplaincy teams that better reflect local diversity, and to encourage staff to focus on patients' spiritual needs as part of their everyday practice.

And she called on chaplains and spiritual care-givers to apply pressure to chief executives and nursing directors if they feel patients' needs are not being met: 'There has been a tendency for chaplains to loiter.Make your voices louder.'

Delegates at last week's conference, run by Bradford Teaching Hospitals trust, said trusts which fail to set up an adequate system for spiritual care could be liable for prosecution under the Human Rights Act, which says people have the right to manifest their religion in worship, teaching, practice and observance.