By Melanie Raskin
Watauga County-based AppFaithHealth serves a diverse population that includes Appalachian State University, the town of Boone and mountain communities along the North Carolina/Tennessee border. But the diversity is more than just regional, says Melanie Childers, Director of Pastoral Care at Watauga Medical Center (pictured above).
“While we’re small and close-knit, we’re still fairly fractured,” she explains. “A lot of people consider themselves religious but are not affiliated with a congregation. We have no organized ministerial association, so there’s no opportunity for clergy to gather. Plus, many of our pastors have another full-time job, so there’s not a lot of time to develop these important relationships. It can be hard to feel like they’re supporting the community and that the community is supporting them. FaithHealthNC is a good match for us, because it makes those connections. I love the freedom to do what works for us.”
With a goal of creating healthier communities and cutting down on hospital readmissions, the program decided to tackle two issues, in strategic order: first, to unite the faith leadership and ministers, and then, to address the problem of people falling through the cracks after leaving the hospital. Missing medical appointments, skipping medications and not adopting good health practices are all behaviors that can land patients back in the hospital.
Empowering partners to succeed
While goals are inspiring, AppFaithHealth found that God is in the details… literally. Their approach centers on establishing key systems that empower partners to succeed. Tier 1 of their program orients clergy and provides a badge and parking for hospital visitations. Tier 2 occurs at the congregational level: a faith community signs on to participate in training and commits to partnering with the hospital in a patient’s discharge plan, whether it’s mentoring a new diabetic with healthy recipes or checking in daily with a patient who lives alone. Tier 3 is similar to Tier 2, but involves a community volunteer in the geographic area of a patient with no church affiliation. Currently, there are approximately 80 congregations at Tier 1, 14 at Tier 2 (with six more in progress) and seven at Tier 3.
“With new health care regulations telling us we’re not going to get the same reimbursement if a patient is readmitted within 30 days with the same diagnosis, we have realized the limits of what health care can do,” Childers points out. “We didn’t have a network in the community to help after patients leave us. But churches do. They already follow people and provide care throughout their lifetimes. So, it’s a given we need to work together to make a difference. For healthcare systems today, I think it’s collaborate or die.”
For Childers and the brand-new AppFaithHealth team, victory comes in small, satisfying steps. “One of our smallest Tier 3 congregations of 25 to 30 members provided seamless care in our first assignment,” she states. “A patient was referred to us by one of our community navigators because he needed three rides to doctors’ appointments until his leg healed and he was medically-cleared to drive again.”
In August of 2015, Childers hosted clergy from a variety of faith groups at a hospital luncheon where they were oriented, badged and provided with parking decals for their vehicles. “It was the first interfaith gathering of clergy in our community in years,” she says. “Just being able to get two parking spaces and a badging program at the hospital is a big step forward. It lets our clergy know they are respected and recognized for the important work they do.” For AppFaithHealth, that important work is collaborating in a community of care.