Memphis Health System Creates First Center of Excellence in Faith and Health -- Builds on Strength of Congregations

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The future of health care may be under dispute in Washington, but it is under construction in Memphis. You can see it through the glass doors of the new Center of Excellence in Faith and Health at the heart of Methodist Le Bonheur Healthcare’s largest hospital (and, of course, on the web at The big news in not some new machine in the hospital, but hundreds of new relationships all over the community Methodist Healthcare serves, most remarkably with 329 congregations who share the mission of health and healing.

Members of Memphis- area congregations gather to bless the new Center of Excellence in Faith and Health at Methodist University Hospital.

The future of health care may be under dispute in Washington, but it is under construction in Memphis. You can see it through the glass doors of the new Center of Excellence in Faith and Health at the heart of Methodist Le Bonheur Healthcare’s largest hospital (and, of course, on the web at The big news in not some new machine in the hospital, but hundreds of new relationships all over the community Methodist Healthcare serves, most remarkably with 329 congregations who share the mission of health and healing.

"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, Health and Human Services’ Center for Faith-based and Neighborhood Partnerships. “Building a coalition of some 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."

Vanderslice led a significant delegation of public policy leaders from Washington, D.C. that recently saw first-hand the work of the Center.

“They were astonished by the scale and depth of what is happening here,” said Gary Gunderson, D. Min., M.Div., senior vice president of faith and health at Methodist Le Bonheur Healthcare.

The Memphis model of healthcare rests on trusted community relationships and on generous support from donors that are moved to share the vision. Dr. Ralph and Barbara Hamilton provided the initial $1 million for the Center and additional donors include local foundations and individuals who contributed over $1.5 million to complete the funding of the construction and renovation.

Experts from around the world are helping map the way forward—and learning from Memphis as it goes.

Professor Jim Cochrane, Co-Principal of the African Religious Health Assets Programme (ARHAP) and Director of the Research Institute on Christianity in Southern Africa (RICSA), had this to say:

"Memphis may feel to some as if it cannot possibly offer something to global health. But it does. The boundary crossing experiments in community partnerships for health and the re-imagining of the way in which health and faith intertwine that the Center of Excellence embodies, do not simply impact on the health of all in Memphis alone. They represent a critical reinvention of what a hospital means and of what community health means, in a partnership that rests on perhaps the single most vital ingredient once one has the science one needs -- the trust of those whom one serves. This is as relevant to the healthcare systems in Africa as it is in Memphis, or anywhere for that matter. The launch of the Center of Excellence is a landmark of huge potential. May those that lead it continue to do so not only for Memphis, but for us all."

The center is an interfaith, collaborative center of research, innovation and training. Working with partners both locally and all over the world, the Center has a multi-tiered approach including: identifying and linking local community faith resources; providing support and resources to clergy; enhancing the patient experience within the walls of the hospital; and collaborative research with international experts on faith and health – all with the goal of improving the wellbeing of the patient before, during and after the hospital experience.

Kenneth S. Robinson, pastor and CEO of St. Andrew AME Church and former Commissioner of Health for the State of Tennessee said, "Two of Memphis' greatest institutional assets are our congregations and our hospitals. Standing at the intersection of those assets - in unique, relevant and visionary fashion - is the Center of Excellence at Methodist. The wisdom of the approach modeled herein, the intellectual basis upon which the Center is built, the contemporaneous and downstream benefits to patients, and its new paradigm of how the healthcare delivery system interfaces with the community - all provide great promise for both reducing health and healthcare disparities, and for fulfilling our calling to promote good stewardship of our bodies.”

Even before the Center opened, early evidence showed the novel strategy is beginning to work and the Congregational Health Network is making a difference. Electronic medical record data from the first two years suggests that those members in our network (vs. those not in network, but matched on age, gender, race and diagnoses) demonstrated 20 percent fewer readmissions, used over $8,000 per capita less in terms of hospital charges and had half the crude mortality rate.

The Center of Excellence in Faith and Health is physically located in 16,000-square-feet of newly renovated space and contains a family care center, family education library, consultation space for families and physicians, and The Kemmons Wilson Family Foundation Innovation Studio, a state-of-the-art area for training and teleconferencing. However, the initiatives of the Center reach far beyond the walls of the hospital with tendrils in every corner of the community.

  •     Building on the strength of the some-2,000 congregations in the Greater Memphis area, the Congregational Health Network has covenant relationships with 329 Mid-South congregations. Methodist has navigators in place at each of its four adult hospitals in Memphis and trained lay liaisons at each congregation to monitor congregation members’ health and provide guidance. Both navigators and liaisons serve as a link between patients and the hospital to ensure that patients get the help they need when they need it and the aftercare needed upon discharge.
  •     A religious health asset mapping project is well under way to improve the health of the overall Memphis community. This arduous process involves community members to identify all the existing points of access or information for health care in the community. Built on the tenant that no one knows the community better than those who live there, Dr. Gunderson was principal investigator of a similar project in Africa, and Memphis was designated by the World Health Organization as the only U.S. or European site to replicate this work.
  •     With a strong clergy health focus, the Center has the goal of becoming the premier clergy leadership center in the world and will also foster expanded relationships with seminary partners locally and nationally. Dr. Gunderson worked with Memphis Theological Seminary and Wesley Theological Seminary in Washington to develop a doctorate program in faith and health. Other important partners of this program are the Memphis-based Church Health Center, the University of Memphis, Emory University, Duke University, and Chicago Theological Seminary.
  •     International partnerships with faith-based health leaders are vital to the center’s research. Partners in the U.S., Africa, Switzerland, Norway and other countries will convene at the Center to develop practices related to integrated health, disease management and spiritual care.

“The 21st Century demands that we connect all the partners relevant to the health of our patients. That demands new models of training, new programs, new techniques, all of which will be generated by the Center of Excellence,” said Gary S. Shorb, president and CEO of Methodist Le Bonheur Healthcare.

“As Methodist Le Bonheur Healthcare moves toward 100 years of service, we are placing a greater emphasis on not just fighting disease but proactively preventing it,” said Shorb. “We are not just preventing death, but promoting the behaviors that are proven to prolong life, and we believe one important variable in our effort is faith.”

The Methodist Le Bonheur Healthcare system was born out of the faith community in the early 1900s when North Mississippi farmer and United Methodist Church layman John Sherard began rallying support to build a Methodist Hospital in Memphis, Tenn. Chartered in 1918, that first hospital has grown into a seven-hospital system with a home health agency, surgery centers, and outpatient clinics serving the Memphis area.

Methodist Le Bonheur Healthcare is one of the largest faith-based health systems in the world and serves an ethnically and socially diverse Mid-South community. The system is the largest healthcare provider of services to the poor in Tennessee.

This spirit of faith and healing pervades Methodist Healthcare and touches thousands of lives every day. The constant goal is dramatically enhanced quality of care and support for our patients and their families. Our history and our caring team of 10,000 associates show us that faith and health can work together to deliver excellent care for patients and promote quality of life for our community.

Dr. Gunderson was recruited in 2005 to help take Methodist’s commitment to faith and health to a new level. Dr. Gunderson was director of the Interfaith Health Program at the Rollins School of Public Health at Emory University. Since the Interfaith Health Program began at The Carter Center in 1992, he has explored the confluence of health and faith by working with an international network of community leaders and multi-disciplinary scholars.

Recognizing a need for such a network in its own backyard, the Methodist board of directors committed to build the Center of Excellence for Faith and Health in 2006.

“The more I learned about Methodist Le Bonheur Healthcare, I found it was a very unusual healthcare system,” said Dr. Gunderson. “I can’t think of another place that would have the commitment to mission, coupled with the vision that would allow this kind of thing (the Center of Excellence in Faith and Health) to happen. Gary (Shorb) and the board of directors understand the correlation between faith and health, reflecting a culture and strategy that’s just quite remarkable.”


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