What should characterize public health done by Christians?

Public health skills are powerful tools to promote flourishing of communities; they complement medical care of individuals.  Christians also want to promote human flourishing, since this demonstrates the goodness of God.  What will characterize public health done by Christians?

Some of the ancients were inclined to treat disease and plagues in terms of supernatural forces and magic, shamanism and religious practices. The Hebrews stressed regulation of personal and community hygiene, isolation of lepers and other ‘unclean conditions,’ and family and personal sexual purity; God gave to Moses commands related to a weekly day of rest, limits on slavery and oppression, sanitation and food regulations.  The children of Israel gave to the world the teaching concerning human dignity since all are made in the image of God.

Modern public health is a noble sphere of human endeavor, whether done by Christians, Muslims or Secular modernists. Good public health practice should be characterized not only by good science but love for humankind. Christians are especially motivated by the value of human beings, as well as God’s command to love the Lord our God with all our heart, and love our neighbor as ourselves. We glorify God by seeking His best for our fellow human beings.

At the same time, modern public health – Jenner and vaccination, Snow on cholera, germ theory, bacteriologic revolution, hospital reform, immunology, the development of epidemiology – has grown up as part of the modern scientific revolution and out of Enlightenment thinking.  It is often characterized by a ‘split’ of sacred and secular, and a peculiar perspective that things ‘scientific’ define reality whereas things of God are confined to personal and private belief. I believe this is an inadequate foundation for public health as it tends to relegate ethical and moral matters to a private and subjective world.

As Christians we have much we can learn from our public health teachers, and much to give in order to alleviate the suffering of this world.  But ultimately our motivation for doing public health is to demonstrate the character of Jesus Christ to the world; we cannot bring utopia to this world but we can point to a Savior who cares about men and women – body and spirit. He is the Savior who not only frees us from our sinful selves but also frees us for His purposes in a world which He has made and is in the process of re-creating.

As a Christian epidemiologist, I will use the techniques of case control studies, disease surveillance and risk identification just the same as anyone else. The tools are the same, whatever our faith orientation. Our desired outcome – disease prevention and health promotion – will be the same; public health professionals seek the best for others.  Christian public health is not just public health done by Christians; it becomes activities, programs, policy and advocacy informed by God’s Word – which commands us to ‘love justice, seek mercy, and walk humbly with.. God.” (Micah 6:8)

A Christian perspective on public health and human flourishing will be informed not only by material success, but also by an understanding of the darker forces we face, including suffering and death. It will seek to address these matters with courage and meaning. A Christian perspective on public health can deal with life well because of the hope God offers in His promises in both life and death. The cross of Jesus Christ has won the victory of sin, darkness and rebellion in order to usher in life here and eternally.

Ultimately health is not an achievement of man but a blessing of God. And He is working in the world to bless the world through His Son Jesus Christ, who gave His own life for the ultimate in public health – salvation from sin, rescue from darkness and oppression, and the freedom of a life of love and grace.

A new era in Roman healthcare

We take for granted that compassion is a natural response to the suffering of those who are ill. But compassion was not well-developed as a virtue in Roman culture.  Rome had not developed a culture of compassion; “mercy was discouraged, as it only helped those too weak to contribute to society.” Family members may come to one’s aid, and the wealthy could afford physicians, but “the common folk were often left to rely on folk healers and sellers of herbs, amulets and quack remedies.” *

“If a father decided that the family couldn’t afford another child, that child would be abandoned to the steps of a temple or in the public square. Female infants were exposed much more often than males.” These attitudes and practices are still with us today.  In India and China the practice of aborting female offspring is distressingly common.  In many parts of the world the handicapped are treated with disdain or neglect.

“The classic world possessed no religious or philosophical basis for the concept of the divine dignity of human persons, and without such support, the right to live was granted or withheld by family or society almost at a whim.”

What made the difference between attitudes then and now?  At least in many parts of the world today, human rights and dignity are considered absolutely fundamental (and they are!). Where then did these more ‘progressive’ beliefs come from?  The new ‘era’ in Roman healthcare came from the least likely place: from a new, small and persecuted culture which penetrated the classic Roman world: the culture of the Christians.

Despite a series of ten devastating persecutions, beginning with Nero in AD 64, Christians “carried on an active ministry of philanthropy which included the care of the sick. Far from the stereotype of shriveled ascetics who hated the body, early Christians valued the body and the medical arts necessary to heal it as good gifts from God.”

“James defines “religion that is pure and undefiled before God” in part as caring for ‘orphans and widows’ (James 1:27) — biblical shorthand for all those without protectors and in need. Christian theology thus birthed a personal and corporate charity which surpassing any previously known. Church leadership encouraged all Christians to visit the sick and help the poor, and each congregation also established an organized ministry of mercy.”

How different this is from our practices today!  How often we are concerned about ourselves without hearing the Lord’s commands to love God with all our heart and our neighbors as ourselves.

“A devastating epidemic began in 250 AD and spread across northern Africa to the Western Empire.  It lasted 15 to 20 years, and at one point in Rome 5,000 people died in one day. Beyond offering supplications to the gods for relief, public officials did nothing to prevent the spread of the disease, treat the sick, or bury the dead. This is not surprising, since the pagans believed that nothing effective could be done in a time of plague other than appeasing the gods.”  However in places like Carthage, north Africa, where the plague swept in with force, the Bishop Cyprian  “encouraged Christians to donate funds and volunteer their service for relief efforts, making no distinction between believers and pagans.”  They continued these organized emergency relief efforts for five years.

“The ministry of medical care in early Christianity began as a church-based diaconal, not a professional, ministry.  It was provided by unskilled, ordinary people with no medical training. Yet the church created in the first two centuries of its existence the only organization in the Roman world that systematically cared for its destitute sick.”

This is not a secret we want to keep from believers around the world today.  From Syria to Thailand, believers are caring for those who are marginalized and ill.  But sometimes I fear we forget our history, and we forget God’s command to love our neighbor.  Medical missions are a wonderful calling and ministry. But as we go about it we must not ‘overly professionalize’ ministry to those who are sick and brokenhearted. Unskilled believers ushered in a new era of healthcare in the Roman empire.  We have the opportunity to do the same among multiplied countries around the world, demonstrating goodness and grace of God, and the dignity of men and women created in His image.  This can be done only as professionals work together with non-medical professionals to care for the needs around them, especially those who are least able to help themselves.

Despite the cost, let’s help usher in a new era of healthcare around the world.

*Quotations are from “Christian History, Healthcare and Hospitals in the mission of the church,” Issue 101, pages 6-12

Taking it in steps?

A missionary doctor, nurse or health provider in his or her first term is all enthusiasm. After all, he or she may think, “After all that preparation, let’s get on with the real work!”

But those first few years show how much more there is to learn! First there is the adjustment to the new sights and sounds, then a new set of co-workers, then a new job, and of course there is langauge learning!  We want to provide excellent medical care but face the obstacles that often exist in resource-poor settings.

On top of these things, in those first years we may also be working on:

  • issues of marriage and singleness
  • growing a family
  • integrating spiritual and physical ministry into practice
  • understanding how our role fits with the vision and strategy of mission and church
  • doing things outside of his or her training, such as leading a team or projects
  • conflict and team formation
  • identity issues (“who am I really?”)

During this intense time of learning and growing, sometimes I am asked for advice on getting futher training: should I do an MPH degree?  get tropical medicine? learn more about management and leadership?

Looking back over my own 30 years with SIM in medical missions, I think I tried to do too much too early. So my suggestion is this: take a longer view and then break it up into steps.

The complexity of the task means that if we try too much too soon, we won’t do anything well. So in the early years it may be best to focus on the basics: our relationships, especially marriage/singleness/family; language learning; and practicing what we have been trained to do.

Then it will become clear what is needed for later stages.  Not everyone needs to go on and do a public health degree.  Not everyone needs to go to seminary.  Not everyone needs to become skilled in management.  But everyone should grow in their understading of their gifts and abilities, and over time, take on new challenges. Everyone should grow in grace and the knowledge of our Lord Jesus Christ.

“For we are His workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand that we should walk in them.” (Eph 2:10).

The process of discovering those good works prepared for us by God is a journey.

Let’s take it one step at a time.

 

Too much to do? Time to re-examine our own assumptions!

Stress and burnout are recognized themes in medical missions.  One source of stress is the sheer magnitude of physical needs; one billion people in our world have no access to a trained health worker and healthcare workers often stand in the gap.

In the face of overwhelming need how do we maintain healthy margins?  Overextended, we lose our compassion, damage relationships, and often leave our fields of service early.  Yet, the pressure is there, since the patients show up, the children are literally dying, and there is often no alternative for those who are the most marginalized.  Wouldn’t Jesus have compassion on the sick and dying?

In the late 1980s I was in a similar situation in southern Ethiopia, where I was called to lead a small team to treat patients dying among the Mursi tribe; hundreds were dying around us from meningococcal meningitis.  While we had some effective antibiotics we couldn’t get ahead of the need – patients were dying faster than we could treat them.  In our case, the answer was not so difficult, as the Ethiopian ministry of health asked us to bring along their workers and meningitis vaccine; thus we were both able to save many who were ill, but also prevent new cases with vaccine.  Caring for the ill and prevention went hand in hand – with a team approach.

But what about a hospital or clinic where the people come each day and yet the facility and staff are still overwhelmed?

One approach has been to assign numbers to non-emergency patients to limit those who can be seen on a given day.  Other barriers have been erected, such as raising fees – although this limits care to those who are most vulnerable and thus tends to defeat our purpose.  Outpatient clinic hours can be trimmed.  Specialty clinics can be opened only certain days.  All these efforts are ways of establishing boundaries and limits.  Some are needed; some are painful.

Yet, our hearts as medical providers are driven by compassion; we want to see as many as possible.  Compassion is from the Lord, and our instincts may be noble. But unexamined assumptions may contribute to our own burnout and long term lack of fruitfulness.

As medical healthcare workers and missionaries, do we recognize our own limits and vulnerabilities?  Or are we driven by a “Savior” complex where we must be the answer to everyone’s need?  Do we allow the needs to constitute our call, or does Jesus Christ shape the call?  If we are called and empowered by Him (as the true vine) then we (as his branches) can only produce eternal fruit as we allow Him to work through us.  Yes, this kind of ministry can be overwhelming, even impossible.  Are we connected to Him as the vine well enough that the life-giving grace of God gives us wisdom and strength?  Or have we subtly become “the vine” ourselves in the midst of the needs?

We do want to give our lives for others.  Good.  But our own wisdom and strength quickly fades and we must come to Christ and His word.  We might have the desire to “burn out for Jesus” but taken to the extreme we will damage our family and other relationships.  Exhaustion and callousness on a chronic basis are not the ‘living stream of water’ that Jesus promised would come from our hearts!

What is our ultimate purpose in medical missions?  It is to glorify Jesus Christ.  We become like a seed which falls into the ground; it must die and spring up with new life.  My hospital, my program, my health teaching – these are all means God uses to show His character through suffering and healing, to make disciples, to enable others to connect to the vine – ultimately serving others by God’s grace.

We must reflect on this ‘Me-first’ mentality.  Do we assume that these health ministries are about us and our ability?  That’s a prescription for the prosperity gospel!  Let’s not promote a false gospel based on our works rather than grace.

The ultimate purpose is to establish God’s reign, God’s kingdom on earth – or some small signpost of the kingdom in a broken and twisted world. We can make a real difference. However it is not by our trying hard enough, but by abiding in the Vine. We don’t want to plant our program; we want to plant the mission of Jesus.

Health is not just about the physical needs of those who come to us, but about their social, economic and relational needs. I fear that too often we apply a Western mindset [think separation of physical from spiritual/non-physical reality].  One way of creating more helpful margins is to actually involve local staff and others from churches and community in the care of those who come to us – enabling them to connect with our programs as whole people, not just disease conditions.

This takes building leadership for healthcare missions, not just adding medical practitioners.

Eventually this means we work with local doctors, community, nurses, churches, believers – to build healing communities. Only through teamwork can we begin to meet the overwhelming needs of those around us in a deeper way.  And yet in this way – as we die to our own ambitions – we are enabling others to see and to know and to serve the Lord Jesus Christ.  He is the King and Savior and healer and He is building His kingdom. We get the privilege to be a small part of His work. He is worthy!

Navigating a path to sustainable Chinese medical mission participation

Take a look at some the challenges that Chinese Christian doctors could face as they consider God’s call to missions. And this article doesn’t even begin to address the cross-cultural issues of Eastern and Western medical worldviews!

As you consider these hurdles, let’s not think ‘it can’t be done!’ Rather, let’s think that “God is the God of the impossible.”  How might God move us as Western mission workers to include and partner with missionaries from other cultures.  Not so much to use them for ‘our’ work but to bless them for the sake of the Kingdom of God.

At the same time let us use our resources not just to do ‘our’ work but to develop spiritual leadership for medical missions which is diverse — celebrating and demonstrating the Kingdom of Jesus.

Challenges?  Yes. Opportunities? Definitely.  Needed? Leadership. Why?  Because this reflects the character of God and reflects His glory.

Jesus taught us, “With God all things are possible.”  Matthew 19:26

 

Finding meaning as a Christian in mission

is a trauma and critical care surgeon who recently left clinical practice to homeschool her children. She teaches at Harvard Medical School, and has contributed to the literature on surgical critical care and medical education. She and her family live in the woods north of Boston.

This is her journey from medical mission mayhem to meaning.

Assessing the learning needs of medical mission workers

How does one assess the learning needs of healthcare missionaries or mission workers?  If you are looking to assess your own needs, here is an article that is a good place to start. How would you do it for an entire organization, or the entire enterprise of healthcare missions?

The Global Healthcare Workers Needs Assessment (GHWNA) Survey Report was completed in 2015 by Mark Strand and Amber Wood, under the sponsorship of MedSend and endorsed by the Christian Medical and Dental Association of the US. The aim was included in the title of the report: “That Healthcare Missionaries Might Flourish.”  The aim was to “investigate how to better equip healthcare missionaries for long-term service.” It builds on the PRISM survey which was more about the training, support and satifaction of healthcare missionaries with their role, with a view towards making needed changes in selection, preparation and equipping of these workers.

Some key findings:

Healthcare missionary respondents had a mean age of 41 years. Years in cross-cultural service were 7.2 for those currently serving and 4.8 for those who had returned from the field. All were American missionaries, so we need to generalize with care.

85-90% of these healthcare missionaries reported that they were able to see lives transformed, meet spiritual needs, and share the gospel with those they served.

While there was a high degree of satisfaction with their roles in healthcare (93% and 84% of currently serving and returned missionaries, respectively), many (33 and 34%) reported a discrepancy between their roles and what they expected. Role inconsistency is a problem for medical missionaries.

Those currently serving spend less of their time on clinical work, and more on administration, church or mission agency responsibilities, and general organizational leadership, than post-field missionaries did when serving on the field.

In terms of needs assessment, healthcare workers serving overseas find themselves with many jobs for which they are unprepared. These cross-cultural healthcare workers rated professional development and leadership training as important as cross-cultural training in preparation for the field. Those serving on the field weigh public health equally to clinical skills in terms of training.

Leadership training needs reported by respondents in order of importance were: mentoring, strategic planning, and general leadership skills. However only 38% of all respondents had mentors, and only 18% of sending agencies assign mentors who are healthcare professionals themselves.

Of note, 18% of those serving and 20% of those previously serving were individuals at risk for burnout based on callousness, and 8% and 20% based on exhaustion.

Half of post-field respondents left the field for potentially preventable reasons, most often burnout, interpersonal conflict, or emotional exhaustion.

Learning needs for American medical missionaries might therefore include not only cross cultural preparation and clinical competence but leadership and management skills, burnout awareness and prevention, conflict management and emotional awareness. When possible there should be intentional mentoring which is delivered by healthcare professionals who understand the challenges of cross-cultural service.

How would you assess your learning needs in terms of service as a healthcare worker? Where would you agree or disagree with these survey findings?