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Eliminating 'Medical Deserts': Christian Ministry Partners with Health Care System to Reach Under-Served Populations

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Too many Americans aren't getting the health care they need. This often happens in areas sometimes known as "medical deserts," neighborhoods where there isn't a doctor's office nearby and where people living there don't generally have transportation to travel to get to one. 

Christian Homeless Shelter

In an effort to solve this problem, some Christian ministries are partnering with local health care providers to help reach these under-served populations. One example is the Norfolk, Virginia's Union Mission Ministries,  which, in cooperation with Sentara Healthcare, is providing much needed medical care in the form of a permanent doctor's office at their homeless shelters. 

Reverend William Crawley, Chief Operations Officer at Union Mission Ministries, told CBN News to say the on-site clinic is very important would be a "gross understatement," adding it follows the model set by Jesus Christ to meet people in their moment of extreme need. 

"God created us one, to worship Him in spirit and truth," Reverend Crawley said. "He also created us not be an island amongst ourselves, that we are created to be in fellowship with one another, that we are created to be in community." 

Regardless of their ability to pay, people staying at the shelter now have access to a primary care physician, Dr. Michael Charles, Executive Medical Director of Sentara's Community Care Program, who told CBN News he values the relationships he forms with his patients. 

"Our goal, why I got into medicine, why we got into medicine, is not just to take care of their blood pressure and their diabetes, but we do that, we take care of all their problems they have, their medical problems," Dr. Charles explained. "But you get to know the patients too."

The ministry partnered with Sentara Healthcare as part of their new Community Care Program that began as a way to try to reach people who can't get the medical attention they need. 

"My place of home is my church," Heather Strock, Executive Director of Sentara's Community Care program said. "So it was a no-brainer for me to think, 'You know what? Maybe the way we can get to the community members that are not receiving care is through other avenues,' and the faith-based church locations was our number one go-to."

Plugged-In Pastor

That's what makes Reverend Dr. Geoffrey V. Guns, Senior Pastor of the Second Calvary Baptist Church in Norfolk, Virginia the perfect partner, as he's been in the middle of one of the city's neediest communities for four decades and has a personal relationship with many people who live there.

"One of the things that is often overlooked, or not understood, about black churches,is that we are very much concerned about the physical well-being as well as the spiritual," Rev. Dr. Guns told CBN News. "Because it's no use to talk to people about going to heaven when you're living in hell." 

Rev. Dr. Guns points out how under-served populations rarely have transporation or enough time to go to the doctor. Affordability and lack of trust can also keep people away. 

"In the health care industry you have to have people who are willing to work with you, and who are willing to say, 'You tell us what you need. You tell us how to do this. You tell us, and help us understand how to work in these communities,' because everybody doesn't understand how to do that," said Rev. Dr. Guns. 

That willingness became apparent through Iris Lundy, RN, BSN, Sentara's Health Equity Director. 

"We're being innovative and most of all we're listening," Lundy told CBN News. "Then once we listen we're taking action, and we're going back and saying, 'Here's what we heard you say, here's what we're doing. Are we meeting the expectation?' And when they say, 'no,' we go back to the drawing board, and when they say, 'yes,' we celebrate together."

Sentara and local pastors worked together to bring health care to needy neighborhoods in the form of another permanent doctor's office like the one at the homeless shelter. 

Mobile Clinic

As a way to serve countless others, a converted recreational vehicle serves as a doctor's office on wheels, traveling to several different neighborhoods, often parking in front of familiar churches, complete with the pastor's stamp of approval to help build trust in the mobile clinic.

The mobile clinic is as much like a regular doctor's office as possible. There are exam rooms, a place to draw blood, give immunizations, even privacy to discuss mental health issues. All patients are welcome regardless of their insurance status. Some patients are eligible for insurance and don't realize it, in which case, clinic workers help the patients complete the necessary paperwork to enroll. 

"We can't build brick and mortar everywhere," explained Dr. Charles, who serves as the primary care physician at the mobile clinic. "So having this van, and being able to put this van in a certain area like Queen Street Baptist Church, or Ivy Baptist, or Good Samaritan, have it go back on a weekly basis, patients can get used to coming back, and that could be their mobile medical home."

Health Equality vs. Health Equity

The partnership between the faith community and health care providers is a way to move from health equality to health equity, which means instead tailoring services to fit the individual needs of the patients so they can live their healthiest lives. 

"So you think equality, I'm giving everyone the same resource. When I think equity, I'm going to individualize that," Lundy explained, "So for example, I could have two chairs in here like you and I are sitting on. Well if it's someone who needs a wheelchair, I have provided equality because I brought in two chairs. It was not equitable because one person could not utilize that chair."

So while health care in the U.S. might be available to all, certain populations are unable or unwilling to take advantage due to special circumstance. In those cases, some Christian ministries are working with health care providers to meet these under-served communities where they are.

"Showing compassion, showing empathy, showing Christ-like love and what they can do," said Rev. Crawley. "And if we withhold that, what that also can do, and just understanding the weight of that. We all have the capacity to serve in a way that enhances the quality of life of the people around us."

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