Church-hospital alliances aim to improve healthcare in poor areas

The success of a partnership between Memphis, Tenn., churches and hospitals is attracting attention from other poor, Southern communities.

Memphis is listed by census data as the poorest metropolitan area in the United States, and Republican Gov. Bill Haslam has called Tennessee "one of the least healthy states in the nation."

In response, Salon reports, midway through the last decade, Methodist Le Bonheur Healthcare, the city's largest hospital system, allied with local churches to form what eventually became the Congregational Health Network (CHN). The CHN's director, Bobby Baker, appoints 10 "navigators," trained in diverse fields such as community organizing and nursing.

Volunteers at each church work with the navigators to promote community health as well as reach out to individual congregants who are sick. Patients who are part of CHN receive a card to present at the hospital, which "activates [their] social safety net" by putting the word out to their church's liaison and congregants, who consequently pray for the patient's recovery and provide emotional support and hospital visits. Upon discharge, the liaisons or navigators meet up with the patients to ensure they understand the next steps and to determine their needs and what help the network can provide for them.

According to Salon, the data show CHN is yielding positive results. In a study of CHN patients, a group of them stayed out of the hospital post-discharge for a median of 426 days, compared to 306 days for non-members. CHN members also have had a "significantly lower" mortality rate over the past three years.

More recently, in Lexington, N.C., the 69-bed Wake Forest Baptist Health-Lexington Medical Center has joined with several church congregations in the area to pilot the FaithHealthNC initiative, according to the Lexington Dispatch. FaithHealthNC credits the "Memphis Model" as its inspiration, and has enlisted the aid of the Rev. Gary Gunderson, who developed the "covenant" for the CHN. While FaithHealthNC will begin as a Lexington-based program, the participants hope to expand it to cover the state.

Churches participating in FaithHealthNC, the Dispatch reports, will use a similar model to the CHN. They plan to assign volunteers to be "congregational care coordinators" who will ease the healthcare process for congregation members by providing emotional and spiritual support, making home visits and analyzing members' needs, such as transportation, meals and medication.

To learn more:
- here's Salon's story
- read the Dispatch's story
- check out Haslam's statement