For improved community health, one just has to have faith

December 1, 2011

Hospital systems are partnering with church and community-based organizations to extend their reach into neighborhoods where access can might be problematic.

WASHINGTON, D.C.-Hospital systems are partnering with church and community-based organizations to extend their reach into neighborhoods where access can might be problematic.

The partnerships, which vary in breadth and scope depending on unique needs and resources, have existed in the form of parish nurse programs for more than 30 years. However, in the past four or five years, more complex collaborations with faith congregations have sprung up in such places as Memphis; Jacksonville, Fla.; Camden, N.J.; and Nuka Bay, Alaska.

These partnerships are leading to better patient care, lower costs, earlier interventions and diagnoses and savings. They appear to position hospital and healthcare systems to better meet the access requirements of the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act.

In a September 20, 2011, White House meeting called by the federal Center for Faith-Based and Community Partnerships, representatives of 17 hospital and healthcare systems met to discuss how-and why-these collaborations work.

The health systems were invited as models of creative and effective partnerships and programs, and are among an estimated 50 or more that have expressed interest in such collaborations, according to Gary Gunderson, senior vice president of Methodist Healthcare in Memphis. The CEOs discussed best practices and explored ways systems could help each other unlock the mutual benefits of church collaborations.

"Churches are communities where people come together and historically are places that have provided a lot of services such as childcare and senior care," says Baptist Health President and CEO Hugh Greene, who led part of the meeting. "They become very natural partners."

In Jacksonville, Fla., Baptist Health has partnered with 16 churches to develop programs targeted at such issues as asthma, diabetes, childhood vaccinations, frail elderly and at-risk teens. Programs typically involve education and health screenings in which churches provide advertising, facilities and volunteers, while the hospital system provides screening tools and health professionals. In 2010, Baptist Health organized more than 100 health screenings for 26,149 residents.

Meanwhile, Methodist Healthcare's outreach has exploded in the last four years, with nearly 400 "covenant relationships" forged and another 100 faith groups expected to join the Congregational Health Network by 2012. Some 12,000 registered congregants have interacted with the health system since 2007, and that number could top 40,000.

Gunderson calls faith-based healthcare outreach the "largest scale connectional strategy in the world."

The need is greatest in low-income areas, where patients emerge from unhealthy environments, intersect with the hospital in "random events of care" then return to unchanged environments, he says. Trained volunteers at churches in these neighborhoods could exert great influence and encourage healthier lifestyles to reduce the need for such random events.

It's the kind of results-oriented work that happens to mesh with the goals of healthcare reform legislation.

"Now we have to change our model," Gunderson says. "We're happy that the policy framework now, in general, favors the kind of things we deeply want to do."

Gunderson, who helped organize the White House meeting, says the first 500 congregants who came to Methodist for services resulted in 20% lower charges during the same typical length of stay.

"Our guess is they're simply showing up just a little bit earlier in their condition, so their acuity is not as dramatic," he says.

The savings model has merit, since two-thirds of Methodist's congregant-patients are on Medicare. But it's not all about money.

"I don't think the motivation comes out of a business motivation at all," says Greene. "In the context of the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, [the question is], how do we realign local partnerships to improve health?"