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Faith-based groups have a role to play in ending health care disparities | GUEST COMMENTARY

A clinic conducts COVID-19 tests and administers vaccinations at Bethel AME Church, Friday, Sept. 24, 2021, in Providence, R.I. Despite having some of the highest vaccination rates in the country, the New England states are still grappling with rapidly increasing COVID-19 case counts, hospitalizations and deaths. (AP Photo/David Goldman)
A clinic conducts COVID-19 tests and administers vaccinations at Bethel AME Church, Friday, Sept. 24, 2021, in Providence, R.I. Despite having some of the highest vaccination rates in the country, the New England states are still grappling with rapidly increasing COVID-19 case counts, hospitalizations and deaths. (AP Photo/David Goldman) (David Goldman/AP)

The pandemic has shown again the incessant health disparities that exist in communities of color and reminded us how important it is for health care and communities to work closely together toward equity. Local faith-based groups need to be a core part of that effort.

Even before the pandemic, churches, mosques, temples and synagogues have long provided the practical and spiritual support to generations of people historically denied access to public health resources. They are able to earn the trust of disenfranchised communities that often have good reason to doubt medical institutions and government health programs. There’s no reason they can’t do the same to ease COVID vaccination fears and concerns.

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As the pandemic continues, people in communities of color remain at higher risk for mental health issues, isolation, depression, stress, anxiety, illness and death. Beneath these health inequities lie social injustices such as food insecurity, housing instability, systemic racism, community violence, lack of affordable health care, generational poverty, unhealthy physical environments, disparities in the impact of climate change and lack of quality public education. These challenges are compounded by fear of the virus and its treatments.

In our work, we see every day how collaboration between health care organizations and groups organized around faith can improve a community’s access to and quality of care, increase participation in research programs, educate and empower individuals and enhance training of health professionals and clergy.

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The Johns Hopkins Center for Health Equity worked with a faith-based nonprofit, STAR (Sisters Together And Reaching, Inc.), in a research program called RICH LIFE (Reducing Inequities in Care of Hypertension: Lifestyle Improvement for Everyone) that aimed to help lower blood pressure and heart disease risk in minority and low-income communities in Maryland and Pennsylvania.

Trained community workers from partnering health systems as well as from STAR visited patients and helped them with their needs related to transportation, financial or emotional stress, and housing and employment instability. RICH LIFE aimed to improve control of patients’ health problems through better access to medical care and resources within their communities, but the research team also hoped that people would feel more in control of their lives, having set and accomplished goals for themselves. Several of the more than 1,800 patients who were enrolled in RICH LIFE later joined the center’s community advisory board because they had learned so much about managing their health and wanted to help bring similar programs to other patients.

During the pandemic, faith-based organizations like STAR have played a vital role in educating people about COVID-19, signing people up for vaccines, and linking them to food, housing and employment assistance services. The Dar Al Taqwa Islamic Center in Ellicott City served as a drive-through vaccination site and partnered with community-based organizations to deliver food and provide transitional housing to those in need. The Beth Israel Congregation in Owings Mills hosted medical information sessions to answer questions and address people’s concerns. Actions like these remove barriers for people who may be worried, curious or interested and need extra support to act on their good intentions.

When schools moved to online learning in 2020, St. John United Church in Columbia built and delivered 50 desks to local students, equipping them to learn at home. In partnership with health professionals from Johns Hopkins, they also hosted mental health workshops for students’ caregivers.

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Faith leaders can help people connect the dots between spirituality and science. A coordinated pandemic response would have engaged faith leaders early, positioning them to spread credible information in advance of the dangerous disinformation campaigns that we are still combating. Science gives us tools that faith can use to better understand how to tackle the challenges we face.

Health care and public health leaders who truly want to reduce health disparities must engage authentically with communities experiencing these inequities, listen respectfully as they articulate their needs, and then share leadership and decision making. Faith-based organizations can help health care organizations to better understand and address social factors that are the root causes of health inequities.

According to the southern African concept of ubuntu, we are human because of other humans. This understanding motivates people of faith and science alike to use our gifts for the good of all. Now, more than ever, we need health organizations to forge alliances with faith groups, bringing their shared talents to the task of fostering healing and restoration in our most vulnerable communities.

Dr. Lisa Cooper (healthequity@jhmi.edu) is the founder and director of the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Equity, the director of the Johns Hopkins Urban Health Institute in Baltimore, and author of the book, “Why Are Health Disparities Everyone’s Problem?” (JHU Press, 2021) . Rev. Mary Ka Kanahan (pastorkanahansju@gmail.com) is lead pastor at St. John United Church in Columbia. Rev. Debra Hickman (dhickman@sisterstogetherandreaching.org) is president and CEO of Sisters Together and Reaching, Inc. in Baltimore; she and Dr. Cooper co-lead the Hopkins’ center’s community advisory board.

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