Gary Gunderson: Faith in better health care

February 20, 2011 in Guest Blog by Gary R. Gunderson

From my office window at Methodist LeBonheur Healthcare in Midtown, I can see the Mississippi River flowing just beyond the Lorraine Motel where a faith leader was gunned down so many years ago. I also can see Elmwood Cemetery where hundreds of Civil War casualties and thousands of yellow fever victims were buried.

So much of Memphis seems visible in our ways of death; the quiet desperation of uncontrolled diabetes, the recurrent crises of sickle cell, and the recoil of the rifle — contagions tangled in poverty and race.  And, scattered around us like seeds thrown at random on good and bad soil are churches of every size and sort.  Are they like the current of the river bringing fertility and change, or more like the frothy foam thrown up by its turbulence?

When I came to Memphis five years ago I was asked which city was most like this one.  ”Johannesburg, South Africa,” I answered quickly.  ”Both live and die from a brutal economic history, with music, politics and religion flowing out.  Most of the religion is the complicity with suffering, not transformation.  It helps those suffering make it another week and those on top feel blessed.  But every now and then the river of faith turns up a King or a Mandela and change beyond possibility happens.”

The faith and health of Memphis is part of the change taking place. People from around the world are coming here to see “the Memphis Model” of community health.  The latest group off the plane was a high-level delegation of federal health policy leaders.  

“The city of Memphis is leading the nation in faith-health partnerships and attracting the attention of senior Obama Administration officials,” said Mara Vanderslice, Acting Director, HHS Center for Faith-based and Neighborhood Partnerships. “Building a coalition of 400 congregations with hospitals, community health centers and privately funded clinics to promote public health to communities that are traditionally underserved is unprecedented and should be celebrated.”

But is this the current or the froth?  Is this truly useful work or a distraction?  We can compare patients from our connected congregations with our overall patient population and control for diagnosis, race, age and gender.  We see significantly lower costs, which appear to reflect that people are getting here a bit quicker.  And they are bouncing back less frequently, perhaps because they are received into a family and congregation that can help them heal.  Those connected to congregations even have lower overall mortality.  We are doing nothing different clinically, but the trusted connection with an informed congregation changes outcomes.

A lot of what passes for innovation in health care is expensive bangles and beads.  There is plenty of fearful fizz in the big offices, but most of that is about how to cut, stop, divert, and avoid costs.  And, of course, there is the constant competition to buy another exotic machine.  Real innovation calls us to try, not harder, but differently.

Nothing could be more obvious or difficult than changing the relationship between the hospital and the community.  This is social innovation, cheaper, but harder than plugging — or unplugging — another medical gizmo.  Any innovation, technical or social, rests on a blend of imagination, intelligence and evidence. The blender for the Memphis Model is the Innovation Studio at the heart of the Center of Excellence in Faith and Health right near the front door of Methodist University Hospital.  

This is where the 329 congregations are trained in the arts of connection and caring. Here technology connects us with experts working the same challenges in Cape Town, South Africa, Tubingen, Germany, Oslo, Norway, Vellore, India.  This kind of innovation isn’t free, but infinitely cheaper than mindless spending–or not spending.

This whole story is a faith story–blending faith-based treatment systems like our hospital, with faith-based primary ministries like Church Health Center and Christ Community Health Services.  But the true health system is the hundreds of congregations that surround the medical sites with caring, comfort and healing. Who knows if all this can bend the curve of brutal health data that maps the patterns of death in Memphis today?  

Is faith the current or the froth?  It’s too early to tell, but it feels like a river of life.

Rev. Dr. Gary R Gunderson is Senior Vice President for Faith and Health of Methodist Le Bonheur Healthcare.