When resources are scarce and medical professionals are few, one gets overwhelmed with the physical needs of patients needing care. Emotional, spiritual and community care seem like a luxury. Yet the challenge is how to make a long range impact in these communities. Here is an example from the Hopkins Medicine journal which shows how one group of professionals brought patients and community to ‘the same table’ – and thus began to discuss deeper issues.
After trying to engage women in breast cancer screening through a local church, these medical professionals felt like failures; only two women signed up. Lesson 1. Short term outreach which does not involve the community from the start has limited long term impact.
Despite their disappointment, they asked for feedback from the church, and were invited to a monthly meeting. “Someone stood up and said, ‘Doc, no one wants to be a patient.'” Being a patient was perceived as a burden, and the outreach was thus an invitation to become a burden. “It was a hard lesson,” the author concluded, “that picking up medical services and dropping into a neighborhood without taking into account the communities priorities, stuggles, or having trust — that’s a formula for failure.” Lesson 2. Our best intentions may be perceived very differently than we intend, and we must be humble enough to receive feedback from the community’s perspective. (Think about short term medical missions; how often do we proceed with our own agenda?)
The author and his colleagues modified their approach to emphasize “knowing the science, knowing the patient and knowing the community.” They launched an organization called “Medicine for the Greater Good,” to engage the socioeconomic determinants of health. Through this organization they created community partnershps which included not only the patients at risk but churches, schools, City Hall and health department — all sitting at the same table. “We discovered that somewhere along our long journey as doctors, we had come to viewhealth as synonymous with medicine: prescriptions, research, guidelines. But for the community, health was more than feeling well. Health is jobs. Health is providing for one’s family. Health is going to church and going to the park. Health is a sense of purpose.” Lesson 3. One of the biggest obstacles to long term community transformation is our own misunderstanding of health!
Read the results of their discussions and the fulfillment they began to find. How do we translate these lessons into health ministry motivated by the love of God and the good news of salvation through Jesus?
- Link short term outreach to long term engagement with the community, not an approach driven by one-on-one patient care. Love demands that we think from both perspectives.
- Spend time with the community, not just with the patients that come from the community. This means actually getting out to know community members in their own homes, neighborhoods, churches and places of worship. It means getting meaningful feedback about how we are perceived. Our best intentions may not communicate the love we intend to show.
- We must change our minds about health. Health is not just meeting physical needs – but transforming community. Most of the determinants of health are matters which the good news of Jesus addresses — such as anger, sexual immorality, greed, guilt and shame. Our role as health providers is not only to provide relief where we can, but to journey with our patients and community as Jesus builds His kingdom in their midst. Jesus provides forgiveness of sin and relief from of the shackles that often lead to poverty and ill health. The good news of the gospel provides meaning even when suffering cannot be fully alleviated. As Christian health providers let’s not just be caught up in our useful activities, but also learn to sit at that table with the communities in which we serve.