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How partnering with faith communities can reduce unnecessary utilization

October 10, 2017

    You may be missing out on an untapped patient engagement resource: congregational health networks. These networks are relationships between hospitals and religious communities that aim to improve health outcomes in a setting relevant to many patients' lives.

    Specifically, hospital staff:

    • Offer health education training to faith leaders;
    • Recruit provider volunteers for wellness fairs or classes;
    • Coordinate community-led support services for patients post-discharge; and
    • Equip volunteer community liaisons with health leadership skills to support at-risk patients.

    Congregational leaders then use the resources and support hospital staff provide to:

    • Spread resources and education to community;
    • Volunteer best practices and clinical expertise to community members in need;
    • Identify congregants who may need additional transitions support; and
    • Coordinate post-discharge social, logistical, and spiritual support for at-risk congregants.

    Many provider organizations build congregational health networks after realizing that local congregations are already engaging in health-related programming (as up to 78% of congregations do) and that the vast majority of these efforts have resulted in positive impacts on participants' health (e.g., decreased weight and blood pressure, improved rates of smoking cessation, increased consumption of fresh produce).

    Faith leaders have also been shown to be effective at engaging at-risk populations as well as hard-to-reach patients who may be disconnected from the health system. Given that 85% of elderly Americans view religion as important in their lives and 53% of low-income Americans don't trust their physician, this type of partnership presents a tremendous opportunity for boosting engagement.

    In terms of structure and function, congregational health networks vary based on health system goals and available resources. Typically, provider organizations establish congregational health networks with either the goal of encouraging community wellness through health promotion initiatives or providing targeted support to at-risk patients.

    Strategy 1: Coordinating network-wide health promotion

    Equipping faith communities to drive health promotion and wellness is a less resource-intensive approach to leveraging congregational health networks. Resources are dedicated to supporting and empowering faith communities to drive efforts themselves, ensuring services are dictated by the community rather than the provider organization.

    WellStar Health System in Marietta, Georgia, maintains an email list connecting more than 80 participating religious institutions. Faith leaders can reach out to the network for resources or staffing requests for health promotion activities (e.g., CPR training, dietician-led health education), allowing for quick support and the sharing of best practices in a scalable way.

    Strategy 2: Providing support for targeted at-risk populations

    Other organizations use hospital staff to drive engagement and offer targeted support for high-risk, high-cost patients. This method is more resource-intensive for the health system, but has the potential to drive hard cost savings. Hospital resources are usually dedicated to recruiting patients to the program, training community liaisons to provide social support to high-risk community members, and coordinating patient transitions post-discharge.

    Methodist Le Bonheur Healthcare in Memphis, Tennessee, for example, uses hospital outreach coordinators to identify and enroll high-risk congregants in a post-discharge support program. Once enrolled, hospital coordinators can relay patients' inpatient status to partnering community liaisons to organize support. These liaisons, once trained, organize social, spiritual, and logistical support for high-risk patients. This extra support has enabled Methodist Le Bonheur to reduce readmissions by 20% for program participants and save $4.1 million from decreased utilization.


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