While Congress was debating health care, particularly what to do about the nation’s uninsured and under-insured, a PCA church in Dalton, Ga., had stopped talking and started doing. And in this church’s plan, the doctor makes house calls.
Last November, Grace Presbyterian saw its dream of providing neighbors with low-cost health care come to fruition. Grace Medical Outreach Ministry, Inc., officially went into operation under the direction of Wiley Smith, M.D., a family medicine specialist who had spent eight years as a medical missionary with Mission to the World (MTW) in Belize.
For fund-raising purposes and to protect the church from liability, the medical ministry was incorporated as an independent nonprofit (although the Scott Parsons, senior pastor at Grace Presbyterian, and other leaders serve on its board).
In the last three months, Smith has made an average of five house calls per day, four days a week, treating people with chronic illnesses such as high blood pressure and diabetes, as well as offering preventive care. “We’re trying to keep people from getting sicker, as well as caring for those who aren’t sick yet but need counseling on cholesterol and other health risks.”
Smith also networks each week at the Whitfield County Health Department, hoping to connect with local practitioners who can assist with patients who are beyond his expertise and resources. “We don’t charge for home visits, but if a patient needs lab tests, like mammograms, or blood work, we have contacts willing to provide these services at discounted rates,” Smith said.
As a hub for the carpet industry, Dalton has become a multi-ethnic community in recent years, with Hispanics making up nearly half of the population. “Statistics say about 40 percent of the people here do not have health insurance and don’t qualify for Medicare or Medicaid,” Smith said. “And with high unemployment, basic health care needs are even more pressing.”
People have learned about Grace Medical Outreach through newspaper articles, word of mouth, and the church’s recent health fair; already Smith has nearly 100 patients. But the purpose of Grace Medical Outreach extends beyond essential health concerns. Its stated mission is “to open doors for the gospel and discipleship through personal medical ministry in Dalton, Georgia, and the world.”
Grace Presbyterian was already active in the Spanish-speaking community–providing sermons, Sunday school, and Wednesday evening classes (the church has two Hispanic pastors), English as a Second Language classes, Plaza Comunitaria (twice-weekly education classes with elementary, middle school, and high school curricula), and seminars pertaining to family life and spiritual growth. Adding a medical component seemed a natural next step.
“Our church had been supporting Wiley’s ministry in Belize for years. At a missions conference in 2007, he mentioned that his family’s time there was coming to a close,” Parsons said. “He also liked the holistic ministry we were developing in Dalton.”
Over the next year and a half, Parsons and Wiley continued to talk long distance about the possibilities of working directly with Grace Presbyterian. In June 2009, Wiley, his wife Karon, and their family left Belize and moved to Dalton to focus on launching Grace Medical Outreach.
Numerous churches have hosted health fairs and clinics, but the concept of physician house calls seems unique, according to Wiley. “You might call it pioneering, but really it’s kind of a throwback. For centuries the Church was involved in medical work. In Matthew 9:35, we read about Jesus going through towns and villages, teaching and preaching and healing. Sixty to 70 years ago, doctors routinely made house calls, until medical organizations decided that wasn’t efficient. We’re trying to get back to basics, not only for the convenience of our patients, but because the visits open doors in other ways. They enable us to establish bonds and friendships—we get to know the entire family. I usually try to take one of our Hispanic pastors with me on the house calls. Because our visits are more personal, we often have opportunities to talk with them about the gospel.”
Grace Presbyterian also runs a ministry called Rebuilding Hope, which assists the needy with home repairs and other physical needs. On one of Wiley’s recent house calls he discovered a serious need. “I visited an elderly man not far from the church who has a lot of health issues and lives in a double-wide mobile home. He was recovering from bypass surgery and a broken hip, so he spent most of his time in a hospital bed in the living room. Unfortunately, there was a leaky roof and whenever it rained it would drip onto his bed. Through Rebuilding Hope, we were able to get the roof repaired.”
Even though the national health care debate drags on, the outcome will have little effect on Grace Medical Outreach. “Many of the people we call on aren’t familiar with the local medical community and they speak little if any English, leaving a big hole in their ability to get proper medical care,” he said. So regardless of federal legislation, “we will still have quite a few people with no access to the care they need.”
Parsons agreed, noting that many patients, even if they have work visas (and some don’t), distrust government entities and remain isolated. Over the years, through its ministries, Grace has earned the Hispanic community’s respect and trust, enabling church members to offer both medical and spiritual assistance.
Robert J. Tamasy is vice president of communications for Leaders Legacy, Inc., an Atlanta-based ministry to business and professional leaders. He comments on everyday issues from a biblical perspective at www.bobtamasy.blogspot.com.