Religious based hospitals have a long and rich tradition in the United States. They started out by providing a service where there was a need not being met by government or the private sector. For example, by the year 1872 there already were 75 Catholic Hospitals operating around the country. Most of these were founded and run by religious congregations such as the Sisters of Mercy, the Sisters of Charity, the Benedictines, and others. The need at that time was access to affordable, quality healthcare, given professionally but with compassion, dignity and with a strong emphasis of concern of the human being. With debate going on in regards to the quality of health care in America in 2010, a person has to wonder if the same need that started these institutions in the late 1800’s are not just as relevant today?
Although this piece will focus on the Catholic faith-based hospitals, it should be noted that many other denominations have a presence in the health care community. The United States are dotted with Lutheran, Baptist and many Jewish hospitals. There are 624 Catholic hospitals in the United States with 120,000 beds, and treat about 15% of hospital admissions in our country. They employ 633,000 people. About 1 out of every 9 hospitals in America is Catholic. No doubt the Catholic hospitals are the largest private provider of non-profit health care in our country, are a major player with considerable clout and could significantly influence the future of health care.
The medical business has changed since the late 1800’s and the Catholic hospital systems have also changed. Rarely do you see religious orders in hospitals with many of them now being run by boards made up of mainly lay personnel. Also, very few are stand – alone facilities, with most being run as “systems”. They do remain somewhat true to their religion even in secular times. Someone I know who works at St. Joseph’s Hospital in Brainerd told me that even in remodeling certain religious symbols must remain prevalent. At St. Cloud Hospital, founded as a Catholic facility, the Catholic church and its local Bishop still has considerable influence. In its mission and core value statements on its website, the St. Cloud Hospital says “As a Catholic regional hospital, we improve the health and quality of life for the people we serve in a manner that reflects the healing mission of Jesus”.
Because of this devotion and dedication to its core values, religious based hospitals have survived fairly well over the years with a dedicated following. Many feel the intangible care, compassion and value as a human being as their biggest asset, in many cases overcoming their lack of specialty services or equipment. Private faith based hospital though have come under scrutiny by public officials and values that are changing. Government funding and support based on morality questions on topics such as abortion and sterilization have in some cases weaken the effectiveness and operations of these facilities.
Still, it’s optimistic to see the Catholic Hospital Association of the United States come out with strong statements in its advocacy agenda for this congressional year. Its priorities include taking a stand on offering accessible and affordable health care for all and in improving the health care delivery system in America. The organization has sent seven policy statements out since October of 2009, sent to Congress taking stands on specific issues such as Medicare and Medicaid payments and reimbursements. It may take more than letters to get our medical system back on track. The attitude of risk taking, courage, perseverance and dedication shown by the Sisters who started these hospitals has to be shown today. The need now is not that different than in 1872…affordable, quality healthcare, given professionally but with compassion and dignity with a strong emphasis of concern for the human being. It really may take an Act of God to get this done.