Your health is your true wealth, or so the saying goes. The relationship between health and wealth is quite well established. It continues to be an intractable issue in overcoming health inequalities. But while financial wealth has an undeniable impact, social and spiritual ‘wealth’ are also turning out to be integral to health.
The National Health Service is often accused of being a national ‘ill-health’ service – it is great at picking up the pieces when people get ill, but not so good at the preventative side of things. That is unfair stereotyping. Ask any health professional and they will tell you that preventative medicine is critical. There just often isn’t the money, political will or resource to do it on top of the other, acute pressures facing the NHS.
The 2016/17 winter crisis is a case in point. There was no excessive demand on the service compared to other recent winters, but many hospitals reached critical overload, closing their doors to new admissions for days at a time. The British Red Cross (in a piece of hyperbole they are doubtless still trying to live down) claimed it was a humanitarian crisis. I suspect many of those struggling to deal with the looming man-made crises in Northern Nigeria, South Sudan, Yemen, Syria, Somalia and Iraq would raise an eyebrow at that statement!
We have already explored the core problems around the collapse in social care as a significant cause in increased admissions and delayed discharges. A new report from Faith Action suggests that faith-based organisations are having a positive impact in this area. They argue that the NHS and Social Services need to be looking to work better with churches and faith based organisations if we are to avoid a repeat of the last winter crisis.
Whether it is Street Pastors stopping binge drinkers and clubbers being admitted to hospital by getting them home safely, or Parish Nurses doing effective health promotion through church lunch clubs and parent and toddler groups, churches and faith based organisations have a direct impact on health through their activities.
But a growing body of research shows that being spiritually-supported and integrated into a community of fellow believers also has a measurable impact on physical and mental health and wellbeing. The added value of the work of Street Pastors, Parish Nurses, Christians Against Poverty, Trussel Trust (food banks) and thousands of other organisations and local churches up and down the country is the spiritual dimension they bring to their work.
Hope, meaning, purpose, reconciliation; these are all vital to our spiritual wellbeing. The gospel of Jesus fundamentally addresses these deepest human needs and informs the work of Christian organisations and churches. This means that the care these organisations offer goes beyond addressing just the physical and social needs that could be equally well addressed by secular organisations. This added, spiritual dimension of care has an added, measurable impact on physical and mental health.
If social services and health services can work with churches and faith based organisations, could this impact be broadened and deepened across society?
In the US, several models have developed that have integrated hospitals and congregations. The Congregational Health Network in Memphis is one often cited as an example. This is where a network of Methodist hospitals has developed a partnership with churches across the city. This network is making a real impact on the health of poor, urban communities across the city.
Could such a model work here? In the secular and multi-faith culture that we find across Britain the challenges are more complex. In the US, a large proportion of the population are involved in churches. Also, there are many hospital based health systems, run by evangelicals, Methodists, Catholics, Seventh Day Adventists and other denominations. In the UK far fewer people would be connected to a church or any other faith community, and we have virtually no church-run hospitals any more. The links are less obvious and easy.
Certainly there is a lot of learning to do on both sides. However, with the advent of Sustainable Transformation Plans (STPs) in 44 locations across England, there is a new opportunity for churches and Christian organisations to engage with health and social services in ways that could lead to real change.
Outside of England, the NHS and social services have already achieved a degree of integration, and in some cases have worked well with churches. However, in most instances there has been little progress to date. Faith Action is working with Parliament, devolved and local government, CCGs and others to start to address this, but it will be a long journey.
Maybe it’s time we all started knocking on some doors.