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Patients & partners

"Patients & partners" Continued...

Issue: "All-American adoption story," Nov. 21, 2009

With doctors avoiding lawsuits by performing "defensive medicine" practices costing up to $500 billion annually in unnecessary tests and treatments, Eck believes his plan would lower healthcare costs nationwide. "In exchange for compassion, give us medical malpractice," he says.

Similar innovations exist at other faith-based clinics where doctors are forced by resources to get creative when it comes to treating the poor. At the Church Health Center in Memphis, Tenn., doctors spend $1 on prevention for every $1 spent on treatment. Patients are ushered into the center's 80,000-square-foot wellness center on their first visit. There a health coach discusses exercise and diet plans before a patient even sees a doctor.

"We don't want to be a place for people to come and just get free drugs," says Scott Morris, the family physician who founded the center in 1987.

Morris believes that healing works best when patients and doctors enter into a partnership. He scoffs at modern medicine's mindset that you have to have a full body scan rather than be on an exercise plan to feel better: "We have a healthcare industrial complex that has developed an unholy belief in this country that technology can solve all of our medical problems."

To foster partnerships, the center conducts group accountability classes for diabetic patients and tackles childhood obesity by partnering with a local ballet company for lessons and hosting "snack attack" sessions where children learn how to prepare healthy treats.

The center focuses on dental work in the hopes of allowing patients to gain the confidence needed to move forward professionally. ("In this world, it's hard to go from a $7 an hour job to a $10 an hour job with broken teeth," says Morris.)

Flexibility is also a key at the center, whose network of volunteer medical professionals serve 70,000 working, uninsured patients annually. Morris says the working poor often skip doctor visits because they can't risk a day without pay. So the clinic follows an open access policy that allows patients to see a doctor without having to secure an appointment weeks in advance.

Thanks to quarterly seminars, 25 clinics have opened around the country using Morris' model, with another 20 due to open within the next year.

But John Bruchalski with Virginia's Divine Mercy Care worries that congressional efforts to increase the federal government's role in healthcare will undercut the practical, community-based answers such faith-based clinics bring to the nation's healthcare crisis.

What Memphis' Morris calls partnership, Bruchalski calls community. He says the importance of community is usually lost on government bureaucrats who focus on rules, regulations, and uniformity. "When you move the power to Washington, the relationships become blurred, people lose the reason for serving, and innovation dies," he says. "Policy can never replace relationships in medicine."

Bruchalski points to the government's current delays in distributing the H1N1 swine flu vaccination as just the most recent example of the government's poor track record.

Divine Mercy Care serves 20,000 patients each year, including 650 baby deliveries, and takes in $800,000 in donations. Volunteers who have a vested stake in and can better understand the needs of the community shepherd patients through medical issues by using personal contacts to secure help from area hospitals, labs, and social service agencies. Keeping the government at arm's length allows the center to pour more dollars directly into treatment rather than into deciphering the maze of regulations tied to federal funds.

John English, the director of the Bethesda Health Clinic in Tyler, Texas, wonders whether the government is stepping into the healthcare breach because too many churches have neglected to help their less fortunate neighbors: "We'd rather go overseas than across the street to serve, and it is kind of a shame that it has gotten that way."

At Bethesda, the dignity of the uninsured is respected by requiring some payment on a sliding scale that ranges from $10 to $20 a visit. This would not survive, English argues, under a system of healthcare handouts if the government becomes the nation's insurer.

Right now Bethesda has tapped into a robust network of retired doctors in the area, but English thinks people would be less inclined to volunteer if everyone expected the government to provide the services. He wonders whether all the reform talk is more about the insurance and pharmaceutical companies than the individual.

"Insurance can't fix everything," English told me. "I'm afraid we are going to get healthcare for all, but just because it is all equal doesn't mean it is all good."

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