Co-authored by Tasmiha Khan
Whether we acknowledge it or not, our health is a part of who we are. Being healthy is not limited to our physical body, but also our emotional, spiritual, and mental well-being. We believe that faith communities can and should be major partners in the movement to improve healthcare. The concepts of caring for ourselves and promoting the common good are central in virtually every faith or non-faith tradition. Hospitals and community health centers are already natural environments of interfaith cooperation where health workers of various backgrounds work as a team in order to serve their patients. Here are just a few more examples of how healthcare and religion can work together for the common good.
Organized religious institutions can serve as the anchors of a community, providing comfortable and familiar environments for social gatherings, educational initiatives, and social justice work. Recognizing this fact, Dr. Arshiya Baig, MD, MPH, a general internist at the University of Chicago hospital system, has worked with churches in Chicago to improve diabetes outcomes in Hispanic/Latino communities. Dr. Baig and her team partnered with local communities, and developed a culturally-sensitive curriculum focused on diabetes management and individual empowerment. When this pilot program concluded, many of the course participants reported greater confidence in their own ability to manage their diabetes, and some started to make significant progress in improving their health. However, one of the most interesting findings was that these benefits seemed to apply to participants irrespective of their religiosity or church involvement. Indeed, many participants called the churches a "safe, familiar, and accessible space" (Baig et al., 2014) even if they did not identify themselves as particularly religious.
Reflecting on this experience, Dr. Baig said, "Being a practicing Muslim, I understand the importance of faith and the role that religious institutions can play in communities. So, working with churches to promote health education seemed like a natural way to outreach to people who may be disenfranchised from the healthcare system. I think that people of faith have a shared approach to health irrespective of the religion they identify with, so this work has been gratifying in many ways to me."
Since religious leaders often play major roles in communities, they can help institutionalize and legitimize important policies. For instance, by collaborating with local Christian and Muslim communities to promote the use of anti-mosquito bed nets, the Tony Blair Faith Foundation has significantly reduced the incidence of malaria among children in Sierra Leone. Since the program's beginning in 2011, 2 million people in over 300,000 households have been reached by a campaign that includes over 500 faith leaders and 15,000 community volunteers. In other countries, religious communities have been instrumental in helping to shape norms around abstinence, monogamy, and/or condom use, all of which contribute to a decline in sexually-transmitted diseases. Interfaith engagement on these matters is especially necessary in countries with large religious diversity.
Although healthcare is often a divisive topic in the United States and around the world, we argue that we, as activists in the interfaith movement, can find common ground around the importance of healing. It is time for us to act on the words of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., who said, "Of all the forms of inequality, injustice in healthcare is the most shocking and inhumane." Thus, we urge our fellow interfaith leaders to build innovative partnerships focused on improving healthcare access and quality for all Americans.
The Affordable Care Act, though not without problems, has provided one pathway to improving access to health: signing up for health insurance before February 15, 2015. As interfaith enthusiasts trained through the Interfaith Youth Core (IFYC), we come together through American Muslim Health Professionals (AMHP) to work with people from different faith backgrounds to ensure they have the tools they need to get appropriate healthcare coverage. To learn more information about this process, visiting healthcare.gov or email firstname.lastname@example.org.