“We all sat at the same table.”

 

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?

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.

 

Sustainable church hospitals

A little publication in 1998 surveyed 43 church-related mission hospitals to identify criteria for sustainability.  They identified nine critical success factors in the process:

  1. Vision/mission/objectives. These hospitals had a Christ-centered vision that had been translated into ‘do-able’ mission statements and behavioral objectives to guide board and staff members at all levels in their day to day work. They were actively revisited at induction training sessions, retreats and other meetings.
  2. Visionary governance. There was appropriate representation of various stakeholders, availability of the range of expertise needed, and availability of the experience required to set up policy guidelines to help the institution in business dealings, etc.
  3. Dynamic technical and managerial leadership. Careful selection of managers and supervisors was reinforced by training, nurtured by prayer, and tested on a continuing basis by application at work. The board showed active interest and demanded accountability at reasonable and regular intervals. These leaders, in their daily interaction with people at all levels and all classes of society, demonstrated commitment to Christian values and determination to live them in words and actions. (Hurrah!)
  4. Reputation for quality of care. These hospitals had a long standing reputation for excellent care in their particular areas of expertise. In many cases this reputation was built by missionary doctors and related staff many decades ago but had been maintained by successors, and continues to serve as a magnet and beacon for patients.  This boosted outpatient visits to an optimum of about 150 per day and filled beds to at least 60 percent capacity; this in itself appears to enhance survival.
  5. Adequate quantity, quality and stability of staff.  These hospitals had adequate numbers of well-trained staff, especially in the strongest specialties. This generated patient confidence. Innovative strategies to reward and retain staff appear very important. Ensuring local access to quality education for staff children was also vital.
  6. Solid financing and financial administration. Key characteristics of the ‘successful’ hospitals were the capacity to generate good revenue, atract local funds and external donations and grants, disburse them wisely, and account for them consistently with generally accepted financial practices. This earned them confidence with stakeholders, patients, governments and donors.
  7. Viable location. Some were in urban areas and able to have clientele who earned money, and others were in rural areas where local people lived near active markets, making incomes reasonable to sustain the hospitals and still serve those who were not able to pay.
  8. Church commitment to health ministry. Possibilities of sustainability were greatly enhanced in situations where churches had inherited hospitals from missionaries but had made firm commitments to to operate them, drawn up clear policies and made it a priority to provide for them financially and materially. Such churches expected to be net contributors to the hospitals, seeing them as part of their Christian outreach or mission. Churches which viewed ‘their’ hospitals as a source of income, taking money out of them whenever possible, tended to be less successful.
  9. Government policies conducive toward private providers. Sustainability was improved when governments made provision for selected para-pubic institutions such as church hospitals to be integrated into the national health network of services, while leaving the churches free to make their own capital development and administrative policies. In these situations, the governments made substantial recurrent-cost contributions to the hospitals concerned, thereby decreasing their running costs and making them more viable.

In planning for successful handover from foreign (or mission) ownership to local, these success criteria can give us a helpful roadmap. Although one may not be able to do much about changing the location of a hospital, plans can develop leadership for many other aspects, such as:

  • Maintaining a Christ-centered vision for ministry
  • Careful attention and planning for good governance
  • Development of leadership both on the technical managerial side as well as the clinical side of services
  • Planning for staff development, including attention to all of life (relational, spiritual and family — even education of children!)
  • Solid financial systems and accountability
  • Developing church leadership which knows Scripture well and can embrace ministry of Word and deed, without neglecting either one. (For centuries the church has been active in giving sacrifically to serve the poor).
  • Advocating with government on policy or larger country-wide issues, especially when it comes to caring for the marginalized and brokenhearted — see Isaiah 61:1)

Community based approaches to primary health care

When I studied international and community health at Johns Hopkins in 1977, primary health care was a new emphasis. Our dean, Dr. Carl Taylor led a department full of passion about reducing illness and promoting health through primary care. But the amount of data about this approach was limited. Like many others, I found that the dream was charming, but not so easily implemented when I went to Ethiopia.

So I was encouraged to hear that now there are over 700 studies in the medical literature which support community based primary health care. Dr. Henry Perry and others at Johns Hopkins have published their findings in the Journal of Global Health here.

The evidence supports CBPHC as an important component of a comprehensively-designed maternal and child health program, not just for the direct effects on maternal and child morbidity and mortality, but because of its contribution to appropriate usage of hospital and clinic facilities. In other words, we need a balance of curative, preventative and promotive.  The evidence is clear.

Here are some aspects of CBPHC:

  • Engagement of women’s groups
  • Innovation like puppet shows
  • Paid and unpaid local workers and volunteers
  • Strengthening the staff of peripheral health centers
  • Using both medical professionals and non-professionals in complementary ways
  • Regular home visits
  • Community based case management
  • Mobile teams

Dr. Perry points out that belief in curative medicine is very powerful; sometimes we are mesmerized by technology and curative care. While they have a very important place, we also know that a large percentage of illness can be mitigated, prevented or treated by non-medical means. We want to embrace good clinical care, of course, but balance this with sustained and intentional efforts to impact communities in broader, more ‘non-technical’ ways. CBPHC may not be technologically sophisticated, yet it can be powerful.

In terms of social justice, Perry points out the CBPHC can have a ‘pro-equity’ effect, avoiding the potential barriers to health care that institutions by themselves can have.

As we make disciples in our healthcare missions, let us remember to raise up both medical professionals and non-professionals, staff who work in institutions as well as those who work in communities.  With needs pressing in around us, we must keep hospitals functioning well yet not consume all of our resources on them — but balance clinical care (tertiary and secondary care) with community based primary health care. We need not only doctors, but social workers, health promoters, and grandmothers who are willing to make the sacrifice to love and invest in communities in order to bring healing to the brokenhearted and hope to those suffering around us.

If we are outsiders to a culture (expats or missionaries) we shouldn’t be naive about the difficulty of such an approach. It often touches on deeply held values, dreams, and cultural approaches which are distorted by our own rebellion from God and the ways of His kingdom. But as we love individuals and learn to serve side-by-side in humility with local people, we can discover how great is our Lord Jesus and enable many to find fullness of life in Him.

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.