A Dashboard for Church Health

A new online tool helps churches build successful partnerships with New York’s Department of Health

by Thomas Cannell

Volunteers in churches across the county have taken blood pressure readings for decades, but a group of churches in New York City is taking this to a new level.

When they take readings for congregants and community members, they offer the chance to sign up to keep track of this data using a web-based application called the Community Health Dashboard. Whereas in the past, volunteers would keep track of readings on paper cards, now they enter them into the Dashboard, which automatically creates a chart showing the congregant’s progress over time. Congregants who use computers can log in and see their blood pressure readings from home. And, because the Dashboard is a partnership with my office at the New York City Department of Health, I can see group data (for example: 28 of 59 people at church X have had a high reading in the last year), but no individual data or any of the names of congregants. Because blood pressure is an excellent measure of a person’s health, it’s worth tracking in an organized way. Our hope is that paying close attention to blood pressure will lead to fruitful new forms of ministry, strong public health partnerships, and healthier communities.

Ministries that have embraced this technology find that they can do new things. They are able to show congregants how their blood pressure readings have changed over time, and get into the story of what is driving the highs and the lows. This captures attention and engages congregants in making healthy choices. Deborah Bolden, a member of the ministry at Thessalonia Worship Center in the Bronx, says that using the Dashboard has “helped members become more aware of their physical well-being, alongside their spiritual health. People are always asking us for advice on diet, exercise and counting calories because they do not want to get a bad reading on their chart the next time their pressure is checked.” At the Presbyterian Church of St. Albans in Queens, health leader Judith Henry has added a focus on encouraging members to take their readings in with them to doctor visits in order to empower them to ask the right question and become engaged patients.

Ministries also use the Dashboard to help them follow up with members who have had high readings. Delroy Coleman of Mamre Seventh Day Adventist in Brooklyn, tells me how his favorite part of using a Dashboard is that “it allows me to see a trend in readings … I might see that a lady’s readings have been high for four consecutive months, and then we can go and find out why; what her diet is, etc. I didn’t used to be able to see that.” In the same way, looking at trends in the Dashboard allows ministries to celebrate successes. When a congregant succeeds in bringing blood pressure down to a healthy level, the volunteers can see this as the fruit of their efforts.

Nichelle Davis, the nurses ministry leader at God’s Battalion of Prayer Church, also uses the Dashboard to look at the bigger picture trends in her ministry. Each year in September at the church’s homecoming, Mrs. Davis gives a presentation to the congregation on the overall data from blood pressure monitoring. She tells the church, “This is the Dashboard, and this is how we are doing as a congregation.” She describes the level of involvement (the number of blood pressure readings and the number of congregants involved) and highlights the number of people who have seen big improvements. Then she puts forward goals for the next year. “There is no way,” she says, “we would have gotten this information together from paper cards.”

The Dashboard automatically prepares group reports that church leaders like Mrs. Davis can view. With permission, as the program director at the Health Department, I am able to view them as well. Having this data as a common point of reference is enormously helpful in maintaining momentum in partnerships between the Health Department and community groups such as churches. The Health Department has helped community groups to offer their members blood pressure monitoring for years, but we never had a clear picture of how many members the groups served and what the impact is of various programs and initiatives. We now know that as of March 2014, 872 congregants are tracking their health at 33 churches across the city. And, as we put together efforts with our community partners in the coming year, we will be able to watch the outcomes, and recognize the contribution made by these groups—too often overlooked—to the health of the city.

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