Council puts biblical ideals, like health care, into action

Kentucky group aiming to create an advocacy network across state

By Mary Meehan

Lexington Herald-Leader (MCT)

Published: Saturday, Feb. 9 2013 5:00 a.m. MST

Parish nurse Jackie Graves, left, visits with Madge Smith, 90, at her apartment in Lexington, Ky.

Mary Meehan, Mct

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LEXINGTON, Ky. — Parish nurse Jackie Graves sees her job at Second Presbyterian Church in Lexington, Ky., as the perfect blend of faith and profession.

"It is a wonderful opportunity to encourage a healthier lifestyle in the context of our faith," said Graves, who recently retired as a professor of nursing at the University of Kentucky.

Second Presbyterian was an early adopter of the parish nurse model, creating the position in 1990.

In her part-time job, Graves visits about eight people a week and offers blood-pressure checks and referrals for other health concerns.

Graves sees it as an extension of the work the church community does during services, a way of putting biblical ideals into action to improve health and health care access.

The Kentucky Council of Churches is working to create the same kind of church engagement in health care across the state. The council is nearing the end of a five-year program to create a health advocacy network, share models that are working among churches and other religious groups, and share health information.

Funded the past five years by a $50,000 annual grant from the Foundation for a Healthy Kentucky, the council has been exploring ways individual churches are already providing health services to their members. The group is also advocating the view that access to health care is a social-justice issue that should be promoted by the religious community.

The nonprofit council's executive director, Marion McClure Taylor, says that at its simplest, churches are in a unique position to effectively help improve the health and health care access because they are where people come together.

"The one thing that we have that we can bring that hardly anybody else could is that we regularly communicate" with people, she said.

Graves calls it "having a wonderful, captive audience."

How that audience is reached by churches can vary. During a recent home visit, Graves chatted casually with Madge Smith, 90, in such a way that the woman could hardly feel checked-up-on.

Yet before Graves left she knew that Smith had taken nearly all the medicine she was prescribed for the bug that had kept her from church for a few weeks, that she didn't need help in getting to the grocery or any other doctor's appointments and that even though she wasn't feeling quite 100 percent, she was eating.

That kind of compassionate outreach is something at which churches have long excelled on the individual level, Taylor said.

The council has been working to help churches see how they use that same impulse to help the broader community. For example, she said, a church might branch out from helping one sight-impaired member to offering services to disabled people beyond the congregation.

Richard Heine became interested in the council's work in a number of ways. He is executive director of the Friedell Committee, a nonprofit group focused on improving Kentucky's health care system. He is also active in his church, Faith Lutheran Church, which has been exploring health support groups, with some success.

Heine said churches being involved in their communities is nothing new. But, he said, health care reform is shifting some of the focus to prevention. And some provisions mean hospitals will not get paid for some re-admissions for the same problem. That means, he said, hospitals have more of an incentive to work with churches on chronic illnesses.

He sees the potential from his own experience. He helped form a health support group at Faith Lutheran and attracted about 30 people. But real change for the state will involve tens of thousands getting involved, he said, and that is where a council's network can be critical.