A unique faith-based partnership between Methodist Le Bonheur Healthcare and more than 500 of the area’s churches has been lauded nationally by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services as a model for addressing health care disparities and preventing and managing chronic diseases.
The Congregational Health Network is an expansion of what began in 2004 as the Church Health Network, an effort to make progress in the fight against heart disease, cancer, diabetes, high blood pressure and other debilitating health conditions.
Almost a decade ago, leaders at Methodist Le Bonheur began meeting with local church leaders to find ways to increase access to preventative care and health education to reduce inpatient hospital stays and help patients manage chronic diseases.
“We had to do something outside the walls of the hospital to keep people well because the resources of the hospital are finite,” said the Rev. Bobby Baker, director of faith and community partnerships at Methodist Le Bonheur. “With the health of the community continuing to get worse … we knew it would get to a breaking point.”
What began as 12 original congregations has now grown to more than 500 members that span southward to Alligator, Miss., westward to Hot Springs, Ark., and eastward to Jackson, Tenn. While the network serves the Memphis metropolitan area, most of the Congregational Health Network’s earliest member congregations primarily serve urban, low-income African-Americans.
“We took a look at what was already present in the community and we wanted to try to engage those assets to create a system where nobody falls through the cracks,” said Baker, adding that the network “blends the intelligence of our community’s pastors with the intelligence of the health care system.”
The program has five parts: education, intervention, prevention, treatment and access, and aftercare. Liaisons from Methodist Le Bonheur work with designated church leaders to implement wellness education programs. Some congregations have implemented short education sessions on a different health issue each Sunday – many follow the national calendar of health observances.
“We promise we will bring our resources to help with outreach,” Baker said.
Research shows that people who stay connected to their congregations while hospitalized have better health care outcomes.
When members of the Congregational Health Network are admitted to the hospital, the Methodist Le Bonheur electronic medical record system flags the patient and alerts a navigator employed by the hospital. The navigator visits the patient to determine the patient’s needs and to get permission to let the patient’s congregation know that the patient is in the hospital and to provide a general update on their condition.
Congregations provide substantial resources and assistance to members when they are in the hospital and after they are discharged. Trained clergy and church volunteers help develop a plan of care for patients in coordination with Methodist Le Bonheur staff.
That usually means everything from making sure the patient’s dog is fed while the patient is hospitalized to ensuring the patient’s needs are met after hospital discharge. Church volunteers can help provide rides to follow-up medical visits, house cleaning, meal preparation, and making sure the patient has a social and spiritual support network during the recovery process.
Hospital navigators also make sure patients understand their treatment and discharge plan. Methodist Le Bonheur nurse educators and clinical directors help provide extra education and answer questions for patients who indicate they’d like additional information.
“We still find that patients don’t really understand and really don’t feel that they have the authority to even question what a physician has said,” Baker explained. “I think physicians are becoming more and more conscious of that and are really making an effort to help patients and families understand.”
Since the program’s inception, the Congregational Health Network has reduced mortality, inpatient utilization and health care costs and charges, while improving satisfaction with hospital care.
A study of 473 participants found that their mortality rate was nearly half that of congregants of a similar age, gender and ethnicity who did not participate in the program. Congregational Health Network participants also had total health care costs that were about $8,700 lower than among similar nonparticipants, generating more than $4 million in cost savings to the overall system.
Teresa Cutts, research director for the Center of Excellence in Faith and Health, says the network aligns and leverages the strengths of congregations and Methodist Le Bonheur.
“It (the network) integrates the best of what both organizations do,” she said. “We have to focus on preventing diseases and caring for people in places other than hospitals.”