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VOL. 11 | NO. 8 | Saturday, February 24, 2018

The Church Health Way

Residency program preparing holistic doctors

By Andy Meek

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One of the easiest ways to tell that Scott Morris is not your typical prescription-writing family doctor – and that the health care organization he founded, Church Health, is no ordinary medical practice – is when he starts talking about softer concepts like joy and happiness and spirituality.

Second-year resident Dr. Joseph Freeman checks Ashley Johnson's vitals at Church Health's new outpatient care facility in Crosstown Concourse. (Memphis News/Houston Cofield)

Give him a chance, and he’ll tell you about how deeply intertwined those aspects of a person’s life are to the operation of Church Health, as well as to the organization’s relatively new Church Health Baptist Family Medicine Residency.

It’s certainly not every day someone in a white coat who has your medical data shows an interest in helping you add a spiritual dimension to your life or asks about the things that make you happy. And that’s kind of the point.

Those happen to be the things that make for a well-rounded person. A healthy person.

“Health is about more than the absence of disease,” is the often-repeated, mantra-like slogan from Morris, who compares medical school almost to a language class. You spend your time in medical school, in his opinion, learning how to speak the language of medicine, the language of being a doctor. But it’s in your residency, a program like the one Church Health started offering in 2016, where you learn how to actually be one.

The philosophy about health, and all the ingredients that make for a life well-lived that emanate from the top at Church Health, do not exist in a vacuum, nor are they hermetically sealed inside the confines of a doctor’s office. Church Health has begun to inculcate its whole approach to medicine into a crop of young doctors going through the organization’s new residency program.

The idea is to eventually send them out into the community, where they will carry with them what could be regarded as the Church Health Way, implanting that into whatever practice or health care organization ends up hiring them.

There are two classes of four students in the residency program now, a group of first-year residents and another in their second years. The third group of four will come on board this summer, and about 16 months or so from now, the inaugural group of residents will officially complete the three-year program, which involves splitting the participants’ time between Baptist Memorial Hospital-Memphis and the Church Health mothership at Crosstown Concourse.

The concourse is the sprawling former Sears, Roebuck & Co. distribution center complex where Church Health moved its operations, joining other retail, office and residential tenants. The move to Crosstown, among other things, consolidated more than a dozen buildings around Memphis where Church Health offered services into a single facility. So now the concourse also houses a small but growing crop of young medical residents.

When you look at the math behind practicing family medicine, Morris estimates that one primary care doctor statistically impacts about 2,500 people. Which means it doesn’t take long until graduates of the Church Health Baptist Family Medicine Residency start to have a significant impact across Memphis.

Dr. Scott Morris, founder of Church Health, said its new residency program will teach doctors more than how to treat patients, but how to transform health care. (Memphis News File/Andrew J. Breig)

“People don’t live their life in the doctor’s office,” said Morris, who founded Church Health in 1987. “They live their lives with their families and in the communities where they live and work. And the doctor needs to be a partner in this process of helping people achieve what we consider to be the goals for living: having more joy in your life, having more love in your life, and being driven closer to those things that are greater than we are.

“They don’t teach a course on joy in medical school. But that’s exactly what you care about, right? You don’t care about the doctor giving you more pills. You care about the doctor helping you achieve what you want out of your own life. That’s how this residency is different.”

The family medicine residency follows curriculum guidelines from the Accreditation Council for Graduate Medical Education, with an added focus on physician advocacy for the underserved. Participants get instruction in things like the role that health systems and social disparities play in communities, and perhaps most important is the training in Church Health’s integrated whole-person model of care.

It’s based on Church Health’s “Model for Health Living,” which identifies seven core areas of a person’s health – movement, medical, work, emotional, nutrition, friends and family, and faith life.

This approach is partly what attracted residents like Drs. Leslie Chanasue and Abdulhalim Khan, both of whom are second-year residents.

A native of St. Louis, Chanasue had always been interested in how to bring quality health care to underserved populations, which led her toward a career in family medicine. Spending different parts of her medical-school years in the Caribbean, Miami and in south Chicago, it gave her exposure to communities that not only needed such care, but care stemming from a multi-disciplinary approach to medicine. And not just the doctors and nurses providing the care, but all the different elements working together – behavioral health, physical therapy and more, all working and talking to each other.

Church Health offers a variety of wellness classes for the public, like this weekly tai chi class. (Memphis News/Houston Cofield)

“The other thing that makes (Church Health) so special is the way it’s cutting-edge, with the way medicine is moving toward a kind of patient-centered home where you can go to one place and have access to all the aspects of the care you need,” she said. “The idea is that fewer people fall through the cracks if you can kind of center everything and all the providers are in the same spot communicating with each other.

“I think I’ve definitely grown a lot since I started here. I had a lot of energy. Didn’t really know where to focus that. I’ve been able to pick up a lot of mentors in the program who’ve helped me grow and mature. Not only in my medical knowledge, but in the way I practice medicine, the relationships I build with my patients. I don’t think I’d be quite the same.”

Normally, her days are structured so that she usually spends half of it in the hospital at Baptist-Memphis taking care of patients under the guidance of an attending physician. Usually in the afternoon she gets to see the Church Health patients who are assigned to her.

A centerpiece of Church Health’s operation is its offering of health care to uninsured, employed Memphians. The city itself is “growing” on Chanasue, who said she’s hopeful she can stay here after her residency is finished and work as a family doctor.

That’s another aspect of the program worth noting. Residents accepted are not under any requirement to stay and work in Memphis, even for a specified time, when they complete the program. But given the needs of Memphis’ underserved population, Church Health is not inclined to accept residents who are definitely not going to stay and work in Memphis.

To Chanasue, Memphis feels like a young city – a city with an energy and an abundance of people who want to make it better. It feels a little like her hometown of St. Louis in that way.

Residents like her who actually land a spot in the Church Health program are lucky. With only four spots in each cohort, the competition is tough. So tough, in fact, that for the spots to be filled this year, 1,800 applicants from around the country and a few international contenders put their name in the hat.

“I came to the States to study to become a physician leader,” said Dr. Khan, who’s originally from Bangladesh and is another second-year resident. “While I was doing that, I got interested in the American health care system and wanted to stay. Church Health had this great opportunity, and what’s great about the program is it gives me an opportunity to pursue leadership roles in the transformation of health care, holistic health systems, which – Church Health plays a huge role in that in the Memphis area.”

Residency program director Dr. Kent Lee said interviews are underway now with applicants for the third class of residents.

Church Health resident Dr. Sameh Askandar checks the breathing of Alison Futris at the organization's Crosstown Concourse facility. (Memphis News/Houston Cofield)

Some applicants from around the country – especially from cities with communities dealing with the ripple effects of generational poverty – have seemed particularly eager to learn about Morris’ philosophy and the Church Health way. So if they don’t end up staying in Memphis, they can take everything they’ve learned and transplant it back to the communities they come from, casting the Church Health shadow even farther, and wider.

So far, other residents in the program hail from Tampa, Florida, and as far away as Nigeria and Egypt in addition to a few from Tennessee.

“Crosstown is a really interesting milieu, where the residents get an opportunity to be a part of the Memphis resurgence that’s going on,” Lee said. “You know how everybody has those stickers on their car that say Choose901? Everybody that comes here, what they get to see when they come to Crosstown and see what our clinic looks like, is how it looks when a community comes together and decides it’s not going to just succumb to insurance forces and political inertia.

“What I look for when people come to our program – and it’s very small, we only have four residents each year – I’m looking for people that want to do not just the medical part of being a physician but understand the way physicians can actually improve their community.”

The residency program is laying a foundation to do that, bit by bit. Participants are packed with knowledge about so much outside of what might be thought of as a traditional health care experience. They learn about food deserts, transportation problems, housing problems, how all of those impact life expectancy, and more.

“We’re going to grow doctors out of our program who, if they’re your doctor in the future, you could actually talk to them about food and they’d do something more than give you a diet sheet and tell you to go lose weight,” Morris said. “The idea is around creating young doctors for Memphis who would practice in the Church Health way. Who focus on what it truly means to be a family doctor, not just trying to figure out how to give people pills. Who understand what a real definition of health is all about.”

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