Interview

A Godly Plan for Health

Q&A with Brent Egan, MD

by Stacy Smith

Brent Egan, MD, is the senior medical director of the Care Coordination Institute in Greenville, South Carolina, and professor at the University of South Carolina School of Medicine. For over 20 years, Dr. Egan has focused his medical practice on chronic health conditions that affect the poorest and most vulnerable and has partnered his professional work with a strong personal faith and leadership with the Baptist church. Editor Stacy Smith spoke with Dr. Egan about his connection to church congregations and his approach to community- and evidence-based medicine.

Stacy Smith: As a medical doctor, how have you partnered with churches?

Brent Egan: When I arrived in South Carolina in 1992, the first group I worked with was the churches. Then in 1999, I started working with physicians on improving the quality of care provided to people with high blood pressure, diabetes, and high cholesterol. The philosophy is that there are two key variables of good health: excellent medical care and a healthy lifestyle. Excellent medical care can be achieved between a patient and the doctor, but a healthy life is best achieved by working with communities—and churches are a great group to work with—because when you’re getting people to make difficult changes, it’s often easiest when done in a community. Also, when you are a Christian, there are some principles of Scripture that support and encourage those kinds of difficult changes for folks. So my approach as a physician has been to combine access to excellent medical care with a healthy lifestyle, based in and supported by a church community.

Is there something about hypertension, or other chronic illnesses, that a church is well-designed to positively impact?

When we live a healthy lifestyle, we have a chance to prevent a lot of people from developing these chronic problems, or at least to delay the time when they get it. The later in life we develop these problems, the less likely we are to experience the complications. So the church can take an active role in facilitating discussions that promote a healthy life because so much of the treatment for these chronic conditions is based on good social support. Did you see your doctor? Did you get medication? Are you taking your medication? To be able to talk with others that have experienced these health challenges, and to see how they solved them, is very important.

On the flip side, what kind of advice might you give to pastors who are unfamiliar with the hospital system?

I would encourage them to get acquainted with the chaplains in the hospital. Also, I think a lot of hospitals would be receptive to a pastor coming in and saying “I’d like to learn more,” because if that pastor is going to be advising and making recommendations for the congregation, and that congregation views the pastor as the shepherd who is trusted, that pastor wants to make sure that what is said is correct. That is likely going to predict the experience the individual is going to have in the hospital.

Let’s talk a little bit about food. You published a cookbook, the DASH Diet, which stands for “Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension,” and you work to provide tangible, healthy options for your patients. How does our creation connect with our consumption?

When we were developing the cookbook, we wanted to hold several things in mind. Often consumers believe two things: first, healthy food doesn’t taste good, and second, it costs more. Not only do a lot of folks in the community believe that, but a lot of people in the health care field believe it as well! So we wanted to develop an eating plan that challenged both of those notions.

In addition, I believe our human minds need to experience hope. Sometimes we cling to and remember things that are not true longer than we remember things that are true. It’s not enough to say that someone who has a master’s in nutrition developed this meal to taste good and not cost you more. We needed people to sit down and experience the meal from that cookbook, and that’s what we did with our patients.

It’s one thing to be told; it’s another to have the experience. It’s the difference between education and training. I’m not convinced that more education is what we need. There are a lot of medical professionals who are educated, but they are also not healthy. Plus, what we found is that most of the folks receiving care were low income and in poverty—and most of them knew a lot of the complications of hypertension and diabetes! It wasn’t that they lacked the education; they knew the science. Rather, they were struggling in their lives and had a lack of hope for the future. If we believe that our life is important and we’re here to help make life better for our children and our grandchildren, we can make healthy choices. But once we lose hope, we lose hope for them as well, and that has negative consequences for generations to come.

There is no retirement in the body. The Bible talks about bearing fruit in every season. If we look at the Old Testament, many of the individuals not only lived a long life, they lived a healthy life. When we live according to God’s plan, more of us live a healthy life and then we die fairly quickly. What happens in this country is that a lot of folks are dwindling by their late 40s and early 50s. They may live to 70 or 80, but they are in poor health. I believe that for most of us, God did not plan this. God planned for us to live a healthy, relatively long life, and then to die naturally, and fairly rapidly, at the end as many did in Scripture. I believe that God has a better plan for us.

As a medical professional and a Baptist, did you have any conflict between your work and your faith? Did you have to recalibrate some of your medical practice around the Word?

My faith gives me a new passion for the role of health. As a physician my tasks are first, to make sure that God’s people are as healthy as they could be so that they could carry out the ministry that God called them to. And second, to keep non-believers healthy and alive so that they could hopefully hear the gospel’s message in a way that they could receive it.

Finally, what is your prayer practice in the hospital?

I pray before I go to clinic, that the Lord will allow me to see individuals as God sees them and to meet the real needs they have. I trust in that prayer, and I believe it’s one God is happy to answer.

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