By Nancy Hull Rigdon, Special Contributor…
The city holds tragic health statistics, ones that have led to depressing national labels. But when it comes to faith, Memphis has long been sitting on a national pedestal.
Innovative thinkers looked at those two factors and wondered: Could we use faith to combat this health tragedy?
The answer—from Washington, D.C., to Memphis—is a resounding yes. The four-year-old health and faith collaboration referred to as the Memphis Model in the White House has brought powerful, positive health data while churning out hundreds of turnaround stories among the urban poor.
Take the success story of one man:
Every two weeks or so, this diabetic’s bad habits—drinking, getting high—landed him in Methodist Le Bonheur Healthcare’s seven-hospital system in Memphis. During a hospital visit a couple of years back, a question sparked the beginning of the change.
“Who’s your pastor?” hospital staff member Blanch Thomas asked. The Rev. Martin McCain, pastor of Grace United Methodist Church, he responded. Ms. Thomas checked records and found the church was in Methodist Healthcare’s Congregational Health Network—the official title of the Memphis Model.
Ms. Thomas, who carries the title “navigator” in the network, called Dr. McCain. He unleashed some tough love on the man.
“I told him, ‘You have to take care of yourself if you want to be helpful to your girlfriend and your kids. You are too sick to be out running around with your fellas,’” Dr. McCain said.
Dr. McCain persisted, often tracking the man down on the streets. The pastor also kept in close contact with Ms. Thomas.
Today, the man—now 31—has made positive lifestyle changes that keep him away from the hospital for months at a time.
“I hate to even think about where he’d be if it wasn’t for CHN,” Ms. Thomas said of the network.
The man’s journey is hardly the only success story at Grace UMC. Brochures on HIV treatment were quickly and discreetly picked up after Dr. McCain set them out. Church leaders recognized a war veteran’s psychological issues, thanks to mental health training through the network, and helped the vet receive the necessary care.
“All of these stories really are life and death situations,” said the Rev. Gary Gunderson, who until recently was senior vice president of Faith and Health for Methodist Healthcare, and remains a senior advisor to its Center of Excellence in Faith and Health. (He’s now vice president for Faith and Health Ministries at Wake Forest Baptist Medical Center in N.C.)
The anecdotes translate into celebrated statistics. The most striking result, Dr. Gunderson said, is how much time transpires between patients’ hospital stays. The average Methodist Healthcare patient goes 306 days between hospital visits, while patients in the network stay away for 426 days.
Dr. Gunderson said the network is rare on a national level for two reasons: It is a faith-based project with real and impressive data to support it; and it is very large. The network includes 452 congregations, which Dr. Gunderson said easily makes it the largest known hospital-congregation relationship.
National interest has grown to where two to three health systems visit Memphis every two months for workshops on adapting the model.
Last year, a delegation from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (DHSS) came to Memphis to see the network in action. Following the visit, network leaders visited Washington, D.C., where they met with senior DHHS staff. Mara Vanderslice, acting director and senior advisor at the DHHS Center for Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships, wrote a report on the visit to the nation’s capital.
“With faith as the foundation, the Memphis Model builds upon the strong infrastructure of churches to reach deep into hard-to-reach and underserved communities,” Ms. Vanderslice wrote.
Several years ago, Methodist Healthcare president and chief executive officer Gary Shorb knew the hospital system had to act on Memphis’ health crisis.
Obesity and diabetes rates were soaring, and the racial disparity in the predominantly black city’s health statistics was startling. Hospitals were overwhelmed with a costly cycle: Patients who should have sought out doctors’ offices showed up in emergency rooms, having waited disastrously long to seek treatment, often because they couldn’t afford it. After a temporary fix, they’d go home only to return to the ER after not receiving the necessary medical support to stay well.
The problems, Mr. Shorb knew, were rooted in deep poverty. Tackling the problem was certainly something the hospital couldn’t go at alone, he also knew.
Mr. Shorb realized it was time for a change.
“We had been doing business the same way for a couple of decades,” Mr. Shorb said. “We had to take innovative and new approaches.”
Mr. Shorb connected with Dr. Gunderson, whose experience included working at the Carter Institute and researching a program in South Africa that merged medicine and religion. It didn’t take Mr. Shorb long to hire Dr. Gunderson to launch what became the Memphis Model.
Considering Memphis is a national leader in churches per capita, Mr. Shorb knew a faith and health partnership in Memphis had potential.
Perhaps most importantly, he said, the churches hold the trust of the city’s people—something the hospital system struggled to secure.
“We are a big organization, and we are run by a white guy,” Mr. Shorb said, referring to himself. “There is an inherent mistrust of anything large and institutional.”
In addition, Mr. Shorb believed the concept of the network fit into the nonprofit hospital system’s mission.
“As a faith-based institution, we feel it is our responsibility to come up with solutions to change how we are delivering care,” he said.
Though the hospital had relationships with pastors going way back, the network with its more intentional work began in 2008. It reaches individuals across Memphis, mainly through churches.
Hospital system costs for the program include 10 navigators—hospital staff members who assist network congregation members at the hospital. Each church in the network appoints two liaisons—volunteers who work with the navigators.
The hospital system funds training for the liaisons. Topics range from confidentiality to caring for the dying.
Each participating congregation signs a covenant with the hospital. While churches don’t get hospital funding, their pastors receive the same hospital discounts as hospital employees. Hospital leaders stress that participating churches are not required to recommend the hospital system to congregation members seeking care. Also, while improving care in impoverished areas is a top goal, the network serves individuals from all walks of life.
Hospital leaders believe the following results from the past four years prove the network’s worth:
Statistics show network patients with a 50 percent reduction in mortality and a 20 percent reduction in hospital readmissions compared to non-network patients, helping the hospital system save about $4 million a year. Officials say the 4,000 network patients a year are coming to the hospital at the right time, coming through the right door (avoiding the ER when possible), showing up ready for treatment and connecting to a support system.
While the network has brought positive data changes when it comes to network patients, Dr. Gunderson envisions the network helping to make a major change in city health data down the road.
“Ten years from now, the health of Memphis is going to be different,” he said. “That is a transformational goal.”
Significant hurdles—ones relating to poverty, race and trust—stand in the way of reaching that goal, network leaders say.
Health crises in areas including infant mortality, chronic diseases and social isolation of the elderly are huge obstacles, Dr. Gunderson said.
But churches, he noted, can certainly ease the challenges.
“It’s not like the hospital knows how to end disparity. The congregations, however, know a lot about these issues,” he said. “Together, we can work toward change.”
While the network focuses on using church resources to improve health, it’s not a one-way street. The network has strengthened faith in many ways.
Many of the church liaisons consider their volunteer time with the network some of the most rewarding faith work they have experienced.
It can be as simple as receiving a “thank you” phone call from a patient—as Ruby Tate, a liaison with Pursuit of God Transformation Church, did after helping a woman clean her house upon returning from the hospital.
Another liaison story involves fighting a community statistic.
Valerie Murphy, a registered nurse who serves as a liaison with Friendship United Methodist Church, assisted with a network effort to curb influenza rates in her congregation’s neighborhood. Ms. Murphy helped organize a free flu clinic funded through a federal grant; dozens of people, many unable to pay for vaccinations, received the shots. The network hopes to build on the success of the first clinic and decrease cases of influenza, especially influenza mortalities, in the church’s area.
Then there’s Dr. McCain. He’s helped the man suffering from diabetes, and not just with his physical health.
The pastor realized the man wanted to read the Bible but didn’t have one. So Dr. McCain found him a Bible. Now, the two men have bonded over Scripture.
Dr. McCain said the network has been a blessing for him personally and has brought the church a new opportunity.
“We are able to reach out to those on the lower economic end of our culture and send a message, ‘You too have an opportunity to be healthy,’” he said. “And that is an incredible ministry.”
Ms. Rigdon is a freelance writer in Kansas City.