Tap into church networks to improve care for elders, presenters advise

August 1, 2011

In the post-reform health care environment, providers are going to face a heady challenge: They'll need to provide better care, to more people, for less money.

Smart health systems and facilities won't try to take this challenge on alone; they will partner with others and will be creative in how they adapt to the changing environment. That was the thrust of a May 31 webinar that CHA hosted called "Integrating Services for Seniors — Parish-based Programs."

During the webinar, three presenters from Methodist Le Bonheur Healthcare of Memphis, Tenn., and that system's Methodist Healthcare subsidiary described how Methodist Le Bonheur has partnered with churches in southwestern Tennessee to improve health care delivery.

Those presenters were Methodist's Gary Gunderson, Rev. Bobby Baker and Teresa Cutts. Gunderson is senior vice president of health and welfare ministries for the not-for-profit, faith-based Methodist Healthcare and director of the Interfaith Health Program at Rollins School of Public Health at Emory University; Rev. Baker is director of faith and community partnerships at Methodist Le Bonheur Healthcare; and Cutts is director of research and innovative practice at Methodist Le Bonheur Healthcare.

Connecting with the faithful
Since late 2007, Methodist has been working with churches throughout Memphis and its environs to establish a collaborative group called the Congregational Health Network. The network brings the hospital and churches together to engage church members in improving the health of other congregants, particularly those with chronic disease.

Gunderson explained that the system saw great potential in aligning with Memphis' faith community. Hundreds of churches populate the greater Memphis area, and they play a significant role in the lives of their members. System leaders decided it would benefit the system and the community to connect with the churches, in order to build relationships and trust with congregants, then leverage those relationships to fill in the gaps in the area's acute care health system. The network fills these gaps by providing support to church members.

The church leaders that Methodist works with sign a "covenant agreement" to fulfill certain commitments, like supplying liaisons to the health system from the church and sharing what they are learning from the program with others.

Support at home
Volunteer liaisons at each network church recruit congregation members into the network so that those members can be assisted by the network when they need health care support.

The liaisons take part in a seven-week training program where they find out how to help coordinate education sessions on health topics at their churches and provide resources to their congregations on preventing disease. They are trained on how to visit church members in the hospital, including helping the hospitalized members with understanding medical terminology. They learn to assist with aftercare — such as simple transfers from wheelchair to car — after patients are discharged. They find out how they can support families in their church when a loved one is dying. They learn how to help church members who need mental health care, particularly by helping them identify where they can go to get that care.

The volunteer liaisons need not have a health care background; but they do need to be well-connected to the church community and have a passion for helping others, the time to stay active in this ministry and the ability to recruit others in the church into volunteer roles, explained Rev. Baker.

The volunteer liaisons work closely with Methodist's full-time, paid patient navigators, who also help ensure patients receive effective follow-up care and support across the care continuum. Those navigators establish trust with the congregations and assist the liaisons with their outreach.

So far, 10,000 congregants from about 350 churches have joined the network.

Making a difference
Cutts said early data indicates that people coming into the health care system from Congregational Health Network churches used the emergency department less, were readmitted to the hospital after discharge at a lower rate, incurred fewer hospital charges and had a lower mortality rate than nonnetwork patients.

"There's something going on outside of the hospital with this network that is making a difference," said Cutts. "(We think) it has to do with combining what the hospital knows with what the church knows about its members and putting it all together."


Copyright © 2011 by the Catholic Health Association of the United States
For reprint permission, contact Betty Crosby or call (314) 253-3477.

Copyright © 2011 by the Catholic Health Association of the United States

For reprint permission, contact Betty Crosby or call (314) 253-3490.