When an elderly parishioner wound up in a Baltimore hospital recently, the Rev. Dellyne Hinton of Gwynn Oak United Methodist Church didn't find out until days later. The woman had her pastor's number stored in her cellphone, which was left at home when she was rushed to the hospital.
"A lot of time people go to the hospital and they don't think to call the church or they are too sick to call," Hinton said. "When we don't know people are ill, we can't help them."
A new pilot program at LifeBridge Health, which owns Sinai, Northwest and Carroll hospitals in the Baltimore area, aims to prevent scenarios like this and has the potential to vastly change the role churches and other religious institutions play in the health of their members.
Several churches, including Gwynn Oak United Methodist Church, have signed on to the program, which will build a direct link between places of worship and LifeBridge's hospitals.
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While health ministries are nothing new, most are limited to pastoral hospital visits, health fairs and efforts to educate parishioners on issues such as heart disease and diabetes, or developing or maintaining a healthy lifestyle.
Under the new program, called the Maryland Faith Community Health Network, volunteer liaisons from churches, synagogues and mosques work with hospitals to quickly identify fellow worshippers who have fallen ill and need help with their care, particularly after they leave the hospital.
The process begins once participating patients consent to allowing the hospital to call their church if they are admitted to the hospital. Trained faith liaisons, with the help of hospital coordinators, will begin coordinating support services for patients and their families, whether it be through the church or a nonprofit or government agency.
That could mean setting up transportation from the hospital, picking up prescriptions and scheduling follow-up doctor's appointments. The patient can specify how much personal information they want their church to know.
The initiative is one of the many ways hospitals are trying to adapt to a new health care model that requires them to curb costs by moving care out of inpatient settings. That means more focus on preventive care and keeping people out of hospitals. It puts more emphasis on the social problems -- poverty, transportation, inadequate preventative care, lack of follow-up -- that may inhibit people from following a care plan, sometimes resulting in a return to the hospital.
In the long run, the hope is the new focus will not only save money but create a healthier population. Churches and other grass-roots groups entrenched in the community are seen as key to finding the hardest to reach residents.
"Many people truly follow and listen to their pastor, reverend, priest or whoever it may be," said Neil Meltzer, CEO of LifeBridge Health. "There is a comfort level and level of trust from folks within their congregation. This could really create a link between traditional health care and the community."
All three LifeBridge Health hospitals will participate: Sinai in Baltimore, Northwest in Randallstown and Carroll in Westminster, Maryland.
The two-year pilot is modeled after a highly successful program first launched in 2006 at Methodist Le Bonheur in Memphis that now has nearly 600 member religious institutions. The program also is being adopted in some way in places such as Indianapolis and Pensacola, Florida. The program recently caught the attention of the White House, where organizers were invited last year to give a briefing on how it works.
The Memphis hospital officials said they spent $600,000 a year on the program and have saved about $4 million each year in uncompensated care because patients are healthier and therefore less costly to treat. There was a reduction in hospitalizations and emergency room visits. The most challenging part of the program was convincing church members in the early days.
"People had a distrust for the health system," said the Rev. Bobby Baker, director of faith and community partnerships at Methodist Le Bonheur. "We loaned the hospital our trust by proxy. We went to pastors and other religious leaders and said this is a program we are working on that will help you take better care of your members' health and help keep the hospital viable."
The Abell Foundation, Community Catalyst, the Jacob & Hilda Blaustein Foundation, the France-Merrick Foundation and the Leonard and Helen R. Stulman Foundation are providing nearly $600,000 in funding to help launch the LifeBridge program, which also could be used by other hospitals.
Carmela Coyle, president and CEO of the Maryland Hospital Association, said there is strong potential for other hospital systems in the state to adopt the model if the LifeBridge pilot works.
"The new hospital payment model in Maryland creates incentives for hospitals to look beyond the care that is provided in the hospital and make sure an individual is well cared for when they leave as well," Coyle said. "It really encourages hospitals to reach into the community and connect with other providers of care, and most importantly connect with non-hospital social supports. That means when people leave the hospital they are going to get what they need."
The Maryland Citizens' Health Initiative, a nonprofit that promotes better access to health care, is acting as an administrator under the new partnership. The group has begun training church liaisons on patient privacy rules and the health resources available to those who fall ill.
"Hospitals have always reached out to the faith community with health fairs and promotional materials," said Vincent DeMarco, the health initiative's president. "What this does that is very different is set up a structured relationship between the hospital and congregation. These folks are called to do this kind of work and this structural relationship with the hospitals gives them tools to accomplish what they do much better."
The Rev. Cleveland T.A. Mason II of Perkins Square Baptist Church said the health outreach his ministry provides is limited and short-term.
"The hope is that the partnership can bridge the gap between the health community and faith community and help us provide a service that will really have an impact," he said.
The Beth Israel Congregation in Owings Mills has run a health program much more extensive than most religious institutions for 11 years. The synagogue employs a nurse and social worker to help address the health needs of members. But Rabbi Jay Goldstein said they are not reaching everyone that they could. Privacy laws sometimes pose an obstacle to finding out quickly when members are sick or hospitalized.
He hopes the partnership with LifeBridge will help make the process smoother.
"We will have a better tracking and a better sense of knowing when a member is in distress," Goldstein said. "Then we can better utilize our program. There are people that I am sure fall through the cracks because they are in the hospital and we can't help them because we didn't know."