Words aren't enough: The health care ministry must ensure no one gets left behind

July 1, 2021

Dr. Rhonda Medows
2021-2022 Chairperson
CHA Board of Trustees
President of population health management
Providence St. Joseph Health, Renton, Washington

As we turn the corner on COVID-19, let's pause and take stock of the journey we've been on for the last 16 months. It has been a long hard road, and caregivers across the ministry have been at the center of it all.

Throughout the pandemic, we've witnessed selfless acts of courage, love and compassion from caregivers on the front lines. We've seen incredible breakthroughs in science and medicine, with the rapid development of vaccines and lifesaving drug therapies. And we've ushered in widespread adoption of innovation and technology, such as telehealth, which is helping to increase access to care while making it more affordable and convenient for patients.

In more ways than one, the crisis has brought out the best in humanity. But it has also magnified some of our most serious shortcomings to the point where we can no longer look away.

With people of color dying from COVID-19 at disproportionately higher rates, the racial disparities that persist in society have been amplified to a level that we can't continue to ignore. Meanwhile, suicide and fatal drug overdoses — which were at epidemic proportions before the pandemic — have soared to new highs due to the intense stress and loneliness of the times.

The mental health and well-being of our children have been another major concern given that many were out of the classroom for more than a year and still others have been affected by hunger, homelessness and poverty, all results of a strained economy.

Caregiver burnout has reached new levels as well, with health care professionals struggling to cope with the massive loss of life due to COVID-19. And if that weren't enough, we also saw the inextricable link between health and climate change, with lives devastated this past year by some of the worst wildfire and hurricane seasons on record.

We've spent decades talking about all of these issues, but if the signs of the times are trying to tell us anything, it's that words are no longer enough. As a healing ministry, we are called, as the Scripture reminds us, to "love not merely with words or speech but with actions in truth" (1 John 3:18). We are called to be a social force for good.

As Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. said, "Of all the forms of inequality, injustice in health is the most shocking and inhuman." That's why the Catholic Health Association's commitment to confronting racism by achieving health equity is the kind of "good trouble" we need in the world right now. Forging innovative partnerships to address mental health and wellness is another key step toward healing our communities, as well as our caregivers.

We must also be a voice for the most vulnerable members of our society, including our children and our seniors. In the words of Pope Francis, "A population that does not take care of the elderly and of children and the young has no future because it abuses both its memory and its promise." And with health systems accounting for 10% of the world's greenhouse gases, taking steps to reverse our impact on the environment is a responsibility that we must take seriously to heal the planet.

After everything we've been through, there's a natural tendency to want to return to "normal." But going back to the way things used to be is not an option because that would essentially take us backwards. It's time to put complacency in the rearview mirror. It's up to our ministry to lead by example and create forward momentum so that we can get to a place of hope, wholeness and healing for everyone.

As challenging as the past year has been, it has transformed us indelibly. We have seen what we're capable of achieving, and most importantly, it has reminded us that we are all interdependent on one another, that we are, indeed, one human family.

In a papal address last spring, Pope Francis said: "The risk is that we may then be struck by an even worse virus, that of selfish indifference. A virus spread by the thought that life is better if it is better for me, and that everything will be fine if it is fine for me. It begins there and ends up selecting one person over another, discarding the poor, and sacrificing those left behind on the altar of progress.

"The present pandemic, however, reminds us that there are no differences or borders between those who suffer. We are all frail, all equal, all precious. May we be profoundly shaken by what is happening all around us: the time has come to eliminate inequalities, to heal the injustice that is undermining the health of the entire human family."

Let's allow the words of Pope Francis to sink in as we lead our communities forward, remembering we are all equal in the eyes of God. On the journey to a post-COVID world, it's our responsibility to ensure no one gets left behind.


Copyright © 2021 by the Catholic Health Association of the United States
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