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Faith in the Hospital

Jim Molpus, for HealthLeaders Magazine, April 7, 2008
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Consumers are savvier than ever before. Scientific advances have complicated once-clear care decisions. And calls for accountability, transparency and specialization abound. In a shifting healthcare world, faith-based systems face a new set of challenges in their quest to stay true to their mission.

When Gary Gunderson left Atlanta's Carter Center in 2005 to become senior vice president for health and welfare at Methodist Le Bonheur Healthcare in Memphis, TN, he was looking for a model to emulate. Gunderson, himself a commissioned deacon in the United Methodist Church as well as an author and a professor of public health at Emory University, wanted to find the other great faith-based healthcare systems in the United States.

"No one had a real good answer to that," Gunderson says. "There is not a list that shows up in U.S. News & World Report. No one had carefully thought through the criteria of how you would know if you are living up to the challenge of being a great faith-based healthcare system. To some extent we are reaching out to some of those who are willing to be part of that fundamental work, and maybe a few years from now we will have an answer to that question."

The connections between hospitals and faith started because churches, congregations and religious orders saw the creation of hospitals as a public good and an extension of their ministry. In the last decades of the 20th century, many direct ties between hospitals and their faith sponsors became more distant as healthcare became more secularized and its leadership more strategic, scientific and business-oriented. But now the role of being a faith-based healthcare system has taken on a new context--and created a new series of questions affecting everything from mission to leadership to marketing.

How does a hospital system follow its mission to serve a healthcare community's needs even as industry pressure calls for hospitals to be more streamlined and specialized in their service offerings? As consumers become more involved in their healthcare decisions, will they look toward those healthcare providers with an affinity to their beliefs as a deciding factor? As science makes healthcare decisions at the beginning and end of life more complex, how do hospitals reconcile those choices with their teachings? And in an industry increasingly obsessed with measurement and accountability, how do faith-based system leaders know they are living up to the ultimate goals set by an authority who does not use dashboards?

Faith partners

Gary Shorb had this feeling that he needed to do something big, but didn't know what. In 2005, the president and chief executive officer of Methodist Healthcare, a seven-hospital, 1,663-licensed-bed healthcare system, was looking for a new vice president to lead the faith and health ministry, but he was also looking for a new direction.

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