While many churches tackle health-care issues individually, the dioceses of Idaho, Northern California, and Western Massachusetts have taken the lead in coordinating initiatives in parishes and dioceses by supporting parish nurses and congregational health ministries.
Two major programs in the Diocese of Idaho deliver basic health-care services to low-income mothers. The year-old BabySteps serves Ada County’s low-income women throughout their pregnancies, deliveries and the first 15 months of their babies’ lives. Grace Episcopal Church started the pilot project, which has served more than 700 women. One hundred-forty women attend classes two afternoons a week. The program provides day care for toddlers and preschoolers.
Open Arms Baby Boutique – which also benefits low-income mothers – and BabySteps employ incentive programs, rewarding mothers for keeping medical appointments and engaging in healthful lifestyles. The women earn points toward new and used merchandise, including disposable diapers.
A third program, the Friendship Clinic scheduled to open at All Saints’ in Boise, will serve Ada County’s uninsured and underinsured population by providing basic health care plus acute episodic care -- treating people with minor injuries and illnesses -- explained organizer Marie Blanchard, R.N.
The volunteer staff includes doctors, nurse practitioners, social workers, lab technicians and registered nurses. The clinic will refer clients with major injuries and severe illnesses to appropriate facilities and professionals.
“It was our Episcopal Church Women who first saw the need for a health ministry in the Diocese of Northern California,” recalled Susan Wahlstrom, R.N. and diocesan health ministries resources coordinator. “When they took their concerns to the bishop, whose wife is a registered nurse, he listened.”
Bishop Jerry Lamb enabled a financial support stipend through a diocesan-wide capital campaign and helped facilitate a health-ministries network drawing on the experience and expertise of medical and other professionals in the Sacramento area. Today, 32 of the diocese’s 72 parishes have health ministries, and 15 registered nurses have trained as parish nurses. Partners in Ministries of Health puts diocesan commissions dealing with specific health problems, substance-abuse recovery, aging, HIV/AIDS, end-of-life care, mental illness and disabilities under a collaborative umbrella.
Health ministries also include educational and advocacy services. An educational workshop offered in several parishes helps people complete advanced directives for end-of-life care. People trained in the diocese’s Health Access Ministry Volunteer Advocates program pursue answers to managed health-care questions and interpret billing statements and insurance correspondence.
One volunteer assisted in appealing a Medicare denial of 100 days of post-hospitalization skilled nursing care for an elderly man with multiple physical problems and progressive dementia. Another found services for a 28-year-old man who suffered from severe depression but had limited income and no mental-health insurance coverage.
In the Diocese of Western Massachusetts, 20 nurses serve in 17 of its 67 parishes. “Parish nursing shows how we can have an impact on the health-care environment of the secular world,” said Janice Ford, parish nurse and diocesan health missioner.
Ford recalled working with a parishioner who had just learned he had Type II (adult onset) diabetes. She spent three hours teaching him about the disease and giving him printed materials including dietary guidelines and medication information.
Keeping people well and helping them learn responsibility for their health, such as being vaccinated and paying attention to nutritional needs, are heavily emphasized.
“It doesn’t require insurance and a lot of money to stay well,” Ford said. When parishioners lose mates or close friends, parish nurses help them deal with their grief and loneliness. “We also help people make quality-of-life decisions based on the things they value,” Ford said.
Ford is producing videotaped lessons to use when time constraints make it difficult for her to visit every parish seeking the training course.
Getting other professionals involved in the health-care mission is essential, Ford said, noting she has worked with psychiatrists, psychologists, physicians and an attorney who specializes in elder law. “Thankfully, many in the diocese are willing to contribute their talents and their expertise as stewardship.”