Faith and Health
Restoring the Connection Between Faith and Health
Forgive Ray Howell, senior minister of First Baptist Church of Lexington, for the enthusiasm he brings-evident in booming voice and smile-when he talks about the FaithHealthNC initiative.
It's not just because the initiative will debut in Lexington. It's not just because the initiative was started by the Faith and Health Ministries division of Wake Forest Baptist Health, where Howell serves on the board's faith and health committee as chairman.
Rather, Howell's excitement has to do with potential connections being re-forged between congregations and care providers.
"I think what has happened over the years is there has been a terrible disconnect between the faith community and health care community,'' Howell says. "In the 1920s, churches saw the hospital as an extension, being engaged in healing ministry.''
Over the years, as health care became more advanced and specialized, the faith and health care communities grew apart.
"I think what we've done is we've divorced ourselves from healing ministry,'' he says. "There's just a dichotomy between the two.''
The FaithHealthNC initiative, he says, "is a way to bring back the two together.''
How FaithHealthNC Works
The FaithHealthNC initiative came to North Carolina along with Rev. Gary Gunderson, vice president of faith and health ministries at Wake Forest Baptist Health, who arrived in 2012 after seeing what hundreds of congregations could achieve in the difficult environment of Memphis, Tenn.
Gunderson, as senior vice president for faith and health at Methodist Le Bonheur Healthcare in Memphis, helped bring about new connections between congregations and providers, especially among people most in need. The result was better health for thousands of people and stronger links among parishioners, congregations and providers.
Studies showed that people who received care with congregations that were part of the Memphis program stayed out of the hospital nearly 40 percent longer than those who were not connected with the faith community through the model.
The premise of the FaithHealthNC initiative is simple.
Wake Forest Baptist enters into a covenant with a congregation by which they agree to work together in helping patients make the connections to ease their path at all levels of care-before they go to a hospital, while they are being cared for and after they are back on their own.
The slogan Gunderson likes to repeat about the covenant is "right door, right time, ready to be treated, not alone.'' Through navigators that will be hired for the program by Wake Forest Baptist and volunteer liaisons from congregations that sign covenants, people in need of care will find help, comfort and direction on their journey through treatment.
The goal is to help people get preventive care when possible, ensure they have the best care when they are in need, provide them with support and watch over them once immediate treatment is finished.
"For the most part, hospitals have rested on their reputations for being smart and compassionate, 'when you need us, you can find us.' In 2013, that's not good enough,'' Gunderson says. "We want to partner with whatever social structure is present in the life of the patient besides us. That's crucial in order to achieve outcomes that technology allows us to achieve.''
Rev. Fred Smith, who worked with Gunderson years ago at the Carter Center in Atlanta, came to speak at a community gathering in Lexington last fall. What has been shown, he says, is that "when people begin to talk about health, they're not just talking about what happens in the hospital, in the clinic. In fact … health has very much to do with where you live.''
These "social determinants'' of health-the condition of peoples' homes, the availability of jobs, their education level-were addressed in Memphis by partnerships between providers and congregations, says Smith, professor of urban ministry for Wesley Theological Seminary in Washington D.C.
"By joining together and working together and aligning their assets together, they had the opportunity to make the life for everybody in that community better,'' he says.
Bringing People Together
There are no limits to the number of congregations Gunderson hopes will sign on to join FaithHealthNC, but efforts are being focused in four communities initially: Lexington, Wilkes County, Rockingham County and eastern Winston-Salem. The long-term goal is to share the program and its benefits throughout North Carolina, encouraging all health care providers to consider such covenants.
Gunderson says Wake Forest Baptist can create a significantly wider and improved version of the program. That's because it already has established relationships with congregations and communities around the state through its CareNet counseling centers and its Center for Congregational Health.
Both of those faith-based initiatives were groundbreaking in their own way. CareNet is the largest hospital-based outpatient counseling program in the nation, and the Center for Congregational Health offers training for hundreds of faith communities, lay leaders and clergy across the United States and in several foreign countries.
With such ties already in place, the effort to establish covenants has a strong start, Gunderson says.
Getting Others Involved
Reaching people through social connections doesn't always involve churches or congregations.
Training will be offered soon to nearly 270 environmental services workers at Wake Forest Baptist to help them connect both on the job and in the community with people that FaithHealthNC is trying to reach.
Gunderson says many environmental services workers "live in the very neighborhoods we're interested in and trying to engage.'' Employees, he says, can be "agents'' for extending the strategy of FaithHealthNC not only in reaching people through congregations they belong to, but through the barber shops and beauty stores, the groceries, small businesses and neighborhood places they're familiar with.
Training will help the workers understand how to reach people, listen to people and advocate for them. The goal is to put people's health first, such as teaching preventive care, and thus improving the community's overall health.
"It's a chance for vastly improved care outside of our walls, especially helping them to stay well in their homes and not have to return to the hospital,'' says Karen Huey, vice president of facilities for Wake Forest Baptist.
The idea also empowers the workers, says Huey, noting that housekeepers and janitors can be seen as the "unknown person who just cleans your room.'' What many people miss is that environmental services workers ensure the safety of rooms, preventing infection and other problems, and provide an ear and conversation to those who are ill.
"They're a huge piece of the patient care program,'' Huey says. "That's something we've been trying to improve over the years. I think this would be another piece for them to augment their role.''
Conference at the White House
The movement to reconnect the faith and health sectors gets a boost on April 4. Gunderson will lead a conference at the White House, where he will be joined by John McConnell, MD, CEO of Wake Forest Baptist, and dozens of other health care executives nationwide.
The program, sponsored by the White House Office of Faith-based and Neighborhood Partnerships, is intended to introduce the concept of congregation and provider covenants to a wide audience.
Howell, of First Baptist Church in Lexington, believes it's no coincidence that more than 20 churches have already expressed an interest in Lexington, a relatively small community.
"One of the things I think is so great about FaithHealthNC is it's sort of taking us back to our roots,'' Howell says. "This is who we were created to be.''
Faith-Based Innovation at Wake Forest Baptist
From the time North Carolina Baptist Hospital opened its doors in 1923, it has been a beacon for innovation in faith-based health initiatives.