Physicians take the pulpit to preach health

More houses of worship are partnering with medical professionals to spread the good news about good health.

By Damon Adams — Posted Oct. 23, 2006

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In death, Todd Bell is helping keep others alive.

More than a year has passed since Bell, a safety for the Chicago Bears and Philadelphia Eagles in the 1980s, died after a heart attack while driving to a track to exercise. An autopsy revealed that the 46-year-old had heart disease that had gone undetected.

Now, with her husband's death as motivation, Daphne Bell's mission is to teach others about heart disease and the importance of knowing their family medical history. She teams up with physicians to spread the message at churches in Ohio, telling Todd's story after Sunday services, joined by cardiologists who discuss hypertension, diabetes and heart problems.

Faith and medicine partnerships happen on any given Sunday as more houses of worship and physicians work together to preach the virtues of good health to congregations and educate them about disease.

Churches and synagogues have long been centers of the community, and some congregations have used that role to address health issues with their members. They operate health ministries to tackle issues such as HIV, diabetes and hypertension. Organizations such as the American Diabetes Assn. work with congregations to promote healthy lifestyles.

The gospel of prevention

Experts say these partnerships have increased in recent years as a way to help combat diseases that afflict ethnic groups in greater numbers. Increased awareness about racial disparities and the growing number of uninsured -- now at nearly 47 million Americans -- have provided additional incentive. Having doctors speak in houses of worship may result in an illness being detected before it's too late.

"The best place to reach people is at church," said Bell, who is African-American and lives in Columbus, Ohio. "Some people in the black community say, 'What I don't know can't hurt me.' My message is what you don't know can kill you."

Cardiologist Subha Raman, MD, went to Bell's church in Columbus and heard the pastor tell churchgoers about the gift of health and everybody's responsibility to take care of themselves. After the service, Dr. Raman spoke about cardiovascular disease and its risks.

"It's an opportunity to educate people in a place where they're comfortable. That day, there were people who said, 'I need to think about my cardiovascular health,' " said Dr. Raman, assistant professor of cardiovascular medicine at the Ohio State University Medical Center.

The push is strongest in African-American churches because there is a higher stroke risk among African-Americans, as well as higher diabetes and cancer mortality rates when compared with other ethnic groups.

"A lot of ministers are doing funerals for members of their congregation who are dying prematurely from preventable diseases," said Stephen B. Thomas, PhD, director of the Center for Minority Health and Philip Hallen Professor of Community Health and Social Justice at the Graduate School of Public Health at the University of Pittsburgh.

Among the programs in churches:

  • The Assn. of Black Cardiologists has sponsored Super Weekend gatherings this year in Houston; Charlotte, N.C.; St. Louis and other cities, providing cholesterol and glucose tests and blood pressure screenings.
  • Last month, physicians from Virginia Commonwealth University spent a Saturday morning at a Baptist church in Susan, Va., discussing cancer and early detection, and giving free blood pressure checks.
  • Through the Linkages to Life program, transplant surgeons will speak in churches nationwide on Nov. 12, urging families to discuss organ donation.

Having an impact

Most local chapters of the National Medical Assn., which represents African-American physicians, partner with churches, said NMA President Albert W. Morris Jr., MD. Doctors conduct blood pressure and glucose screenings. They also serve as resources for church health ministries, which have grown to include walking clubs, aerobics classes and weight-loss programs.

Physicians say giving a little time is worth the potential benefit.

"I can certainly make a difference treating one patient at a time [at the office]. But I can also make a difference getting out and talking to the entire community," said William J. Hicks, MD, professor of clinical medicine, division of hematology and oncology, at the Ohio State University Medical Center. Dr. Hicks has spoken on cancer to about 50 churches during the past four years.

Reaching many communities is the goal of the Super Weekend events of the Assn. of Black Cardiologists. Clergy, politicians and other leaders are invited to leadership forums to learn about cardiovascular disease. A physician usually delivers the message on Sunday and addresses controlling cholesterol, tracking blood sugar and exercising regularly.

"It's a natural relationship because [churches and doctors] are both in the healing business," said B. Waine Kong, PhD, the association's CEO.

The Rev. Leonard L. Edloe Jr., PharmD, pastor of Antioch Baptist Church in Susan, Va., is among the faithful who are grateful for a physician-church partnership. Dr. Edloe, a pharmacy owner, teamed up with Virginia Commonwealth University for a Healthy Living forum at his church Sept. 23, when doctors talked about issues such as breast cancer detection.

The church also has a thriving health ministry. After services, nurses take blood pressure readings. Flu shots are given each year. And an encouraging word about good health is only a sermon away.

"Every Sunday when I'm preaching," Dr. Edloe said, "I always mention something about health."

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