Parish nurses offer support

Valuable service fills gaps in health care delivery

Your client has cancer. She is a mother with a husband and two young children, and the family is at a loss. You’ve explained treatment options and referred her to a local support group, but you wish you could offer the family more support. If she is a member of one of the roughly 4,000 church congregations nationwide with a parish nursing program, you probably can.

"Parish nurses are first and foremost health educators. They also do personal health counseling, community referrals, develop support groups, make home visits, and help patients and families understand and explore the relationship between faith, spirituality, and health," explains Joan L. Wood, RN, BSN, MA, director of community outreach/parish nursing at Promina Gwinnett Hospital System in Lawrenceville, GA."There is strong evidence that people who have hope, positive thinking, and a supportive family deal better with health issues. This is a mind/body/spirit holistic approach to health. Sometimes, a cure is not possible, but we can still help heal."

The parish nursing outreach project at Promina Gwinnett Hospital System was funded by the hospital’s foundation after a Promina executive heard a speaker talk about parish nursing programs. The executive was inspired by the concept and met with a local minister to find out more.

"Part of my job is to find funding sources to pay the nurses’ salaries and benefits," Wood explains. "There are funds available through foundations and private donations. I train the nurses, about five right now, and help churches develop programs.

"Promina pays my salary, but I find other funding sources to pay the nurses’ salaries. Churches are also willing to find money to pay for these programs. Every congregation in my program has voted to increase the salary, hours, and responsibility of their parish nurse."

That ounce of prevention

Managed care organizations and health plans also can enlist the aid of parish nurses in prevention and early intervention efforts, Wood says. "Parish nurses organize health fairs, which include blood pressure screening, mammography, blood drives, and help congregation members take more responsibility for their own health by encouraging healthier lifestyles."

In addition, there is anecdotal evidence that parish nursing programs pay big dividends, she says.

"We have one parish nurse who regularly attends the senior luncheons at her church. While she was at one luncheon, she did blood pressure screening. One woman at a nearby table was having a headache and getting faint. The woman didn’t want her blood pressure taken, but the parish nurses insisted. The woman’s blood pressure was dangerously high.

"The nurse got up from the table and took the woman directly to the local emergency room. A week later, the woman was in another local hospital having a kidney tumor removed."

Unfortunately, there is no national registry of parish nursing programs. Case managers, for now, must do what they do so well and simply ask questions and dig for local resources.

"The number of churches with parish nursing programs is small, but growing. We hope that soon we will have a national office. The movement is growing," Wood says.