The Story of Dr. Morris
By Nanki Kaur
The Church Health Center, located in the heart of Memphis, Tennessee, is the largest faith-based clinic in the country. However, this story truly begins with its founder: Dr. Scott Morris.
Dr. Scott Morris completed his studies in both medicine and chaplaincy in 1986. As a scholar inspired by Plato, he believed that the link between the body and soul cannot be severed. Rather, to achieve true health, one must attend to both.
“I had read somewhere that Memphis was one of the most impoverished, major cities in America,” Dr. Morris said. “Based on that, I knew that is where I was meant to go. I was 33 years old, entirely too young and dumb to understand what it would take to succeed. I didn’t know a soul in the city – so, I just started by knocking on doors.”
Church Health Center’s modest beginnings blossomed into the formation of one of America’s most intricate healthcare systems. The center provides affordable healthcare to over 61,000 people, largely the working-uninsured and their families. On-site services encompass primary care, dentistry, social work, and education, yet the average visit costs only $25.
Dr. Morris emphasized that above all, his patients are the core of Church Health Center’s strength: the people breathe life into the organization. Dr. Morris spoke about how his patients often have little financial wealth or social capital, and have invariably faced multiple dimensions of hardship in their lifetime. Despite these daily challenges, they are able to maintain an incredible spirit of positivity.
Dr. Morris and his team of doctors pursue purposeful equality within an inherently unequal doctor-patient relationship. Every staff member at Church Health Center is guided by the same core principle in treating patients: “Clothe yourself with gentleness, kindness, compassion and patience...above all, put on love, the harmony that binds us all.”
Unfortunately, in many medical settings, this statement is not upheld: appointment time is used to hastily perform check-ups, discuss illness symptoms, and hastily discharge the patient. Staff at church health reject this model. They intentionally attend to both the physical and mental well-being of each patient, creating a dialogue for both sides to discuss and learn from each other. Research has consistently shown that a trusting doctor-patient relationship greatly increases health outcomes. Doctors who display compassion inspire hope in their patients, reduce fear of navigating a complex health system and stand with them in solidarity during challenging times. Patients at the Church Health Center are considered family, and constantly reminded that they are not alone. In Dr. Morris’s words, “The person with power has to obligation to be kind, because it is so easy to abuse power in that kind of situation.”
Another key component of the Church Health Center is its mission of upholding the highest-quality of care. Dr. Morris stands firm on his initial promise: he wants his patients to receive the same standard of care his mother would receive. In his own words, “Health is not simply the absence of disease. It is the ability to lift our patients into a realm where joy abounds.” As a result, Church Health Center’s programs extend well beyond primary care. On-site services include dental care and optometry, child-care services to allow working families to attend appointments, translation services for the Spanish-speaking population, and many accessible wellness programs (e.g. fitness, nutrition, diabetes awareness). Furthermore, to grant his patients an even greater depth of care, Dr. Morris has established an extensive specialty referral system.
Dr. Owen Tabor is an orthopedic surgeon, and one of the many doctors in Memphis who donates his specialty services to Church Health Center’s patients. Dr. Owen Tabor was a Double Hoo, attending UVA for both his undergraduate and medical school career. He performs critical procedures, such as joint replacements and knee surgeries, completely free of charge.
“At its core, the purpose of medicine is to help people,” Dr. Tabor said. “But it tends to get complicated by insurance and rules and this that and the other. That is one of the best things about the Church Health Center patients: there is no money involved….and, they are the most appreciative of all the patients I have seen. Their currency is hugs and thank you’s in lieu of dollars and cents.”
Dr. Tabor also discussed the ability of Dr. Scott Morris to rally an entire city around his cause: today, over 50% of the doctors in Memphis volunteer their medical services. “The city hospital donates thousands of dollars, implant companies donate their pieces, physical therapists donate rehabilitation sessions...everything comes together in this integrated chain of kindness, with Dr. Scott Morris leading the way. Because we know, as doctors, these patient are doing everything they can. They are trying hard, going to work and making a living. But, in the healthcare system in place today, there are people that it is not particularly fair for.”
Church Health Center takes care to respect the dignity of each of its patients, regardless of socioeconomic status. It serves as a gold-standard model for low-income medical care, grounded in the principles of kindness and compassion.