How HOPE was Born part II
Updated: Jun 5
"There’s an epidemic of hopelessness and people who don’t think their lives can get better. So our first job was to spark some hope that their lives could get better. And that’s why we called it HOPE."
How HOPE Was Born, Part II
Jenny Dittes and the Story of HOPE Family Health
By Liz Ferrell, Director of Development & Outreach, HOPE Family Health
Recently I sat down with Jenny Dittes, co-founder and CEO of HOPE Family Health in Westmoreland, Tennessee. I asked her to share the full story of how she founded HOPE, and she did. In Part II, Jenny tells how HOPE Family Health became a reality, how it grew to what it has become, and what she envisions for HOPE’s future.
(Continued from Part I)
ELF: How did you come up with the HOPE name?
JD: As a medical provider I recognized that before healing can take place you have to help somebody get their hope back. A lot of the people who come to us are very discouraged. They’ve tried and failed so many times, and for whatever reason, they have given up. And I almost think that in this area – and many rural areas in our country – there’s an epidemic of hopelessness and people who don’t think their lives can get better. So our first job was to spark some hope that their lives could get better. And that’s why we called it HOPE.
We just started out as a small nonprofit faith-based health care clinic. We were not under anyone’s umbrella; we did not get federal funding. We had an independent board of directors. We weren’t affiliated with any church or any larger entity. We were truly our own organization, with our own board. We started out with four employees: a receptionist, a nurse, myself and a nurse practitioner.
ELF: Can you share some of the directions of growth that you envision for HOPE?
JD: I don’t know how long this will take, and I don’t know the way we will get there yet, but some of things that I believe HOPE will provide eventually include access to specialty care. We have some incredible primary care providers - physician assistants, nurse practitioners, and two physicians - who give excellent care but there are times that we need to consult with a specialist.
Medicine has expanded exponentially in the last 40 years, and we often need a consult, but when the patient is uninsured it’s difficult to find that consultation. I have a vision for providing specialty consultation through telemedicine, where we would be connected to specialty physicians through telemedicine, and the patient and their primary care provider at HOPE would both be present during the consultation. So you could bring the specialty physician into that exam room on a big screen, and you could speak with them – they could see you, you could see them – and the patient’s primary care provider would present the patient’s issue, and the specialty physician would ask some questions, take a history, the primary care provider would do an exam, and talk their way through the exam. The specialty physician would do the assessment and create a plan. And the patient’s primary care provider would be there in the room.
That would take away the element of miscommunication that often occurs when the patient sees a specialist and then the PCP can’t get the notes, or still has questions after reading the notes, or the patient doesn’t understand, but the PCP doesn’t know how to explain it because they weren’t there for the consult. … and our PCPs would also learn a lot! I think the benefits of a program like that would be incredible for patients and providers.
I also would love to bring in more spiritual care. I would love to see us partner with various churches to bring in volunteer chaplains who could meet with patients if the need arose, or if the patient asked to speak with a pastor or a chaplain. We often have patients who ask for that.
A few things could be very helpful even beyond medicine. Health care is all about social determinants of health, so it goes beyond just being able to see a primary care provider. One of those things is a jobs program, something to provide our patients – even those who may be too sick to hold down a regular job – a way to contribute and earn an income. Also I’d like to have social workers and community health workers to connect patients with other resources that impact the social determinants such as food resources and housing. And a lot of our folks, our patients, are just plain lonely. So could we create some sort of a support network where they’re connected with other people who are also lonely? Loneliness itself is a disease, or contributes to it, sort of like hopelessness. I’d like to create more structures to connect and support people.
I also would love for HOPE to expand into new communities. As our Director of Medical Services Amanda Perry – who has been with HOPE for fifteen years – said, “There’s no place like HOPE. Why should it only be here?” And it’s true. HOPE provides a unique kind of care, yet we’re in a rural area that's not very population-dense. So how can we connect more patients with the care that we give. I don’t have the answer to that yet, but I’m praying about it.
ELF: What are the things that you think HOPE does exceptionally well?
JD: Probably the number one is that we have this old-fashioned way of just caring for people. It’s a small community here, and we see our patients at ballgames, at Walmart, in the drugstore, in the park. So there’s really a community feel. I think that’s something we’ve retained – that sense that each patient is a unique individual and we’re going to get to know each person, and also care about you – care how your week was, care how your diabetes is doing, care whether you have enough food in your refrigerator, care whether you’re depressed or whether your feeling discouraged and you just need to talk to somebody about it.
So, I think that is what we do best – to care for people as human beings.
ELF: What are some of the ways that HOPE needs to improve?
JD: A big priority for me this year is to make sure our employees are ok. This is the third year since the pandemic started. We walked with our patients along this road of COVID, and we lost a lot of our patients. We pulled our hair out trying to figure out how to treat this disease. It was an incredibly scary time, an incredibly stressful time. And having more or less come out of the worst part of the pandemic, now we’re dealing with the fallout. It’s a new world, it’s a different world. I don’t think we’ll ever go back to the way it was.
A lot of our employees are dealing with some post-traumatic stress, from losing so many of their patients; from continuing to work short-staffed. There’s been enormous turnover with the whole “quiet quitting epidemic” - with people just leaving the workforce, especially in healthcare. There was a sense of, as we went into the second year of the pandemic, actually a backlash against health care workers. The same healthcare workers that were praised and thanked and lifted up during the first year, during the second year started to be demonized as we went into the whole thing with the vaccines. We had people very upset with us because we required masks. And our employees took the brunt of that – they felt that stress. And a lot of people took out their own stress and fear on our employees, particularly during the second and third year of the pandemic.
Now, as leaders at HOPE, we’re looking at our people [she pauses]…and we know our people are the most important resource we have. HOPE is its employees. So we have to find a way to be agile, creative, responsive, to empower them to be full human beings in their personal and professional lives. That’s the number one thing we need to make sure we get right this year.
We also need to be in more places. I don’t know exactly how to get there, but over time we need to expand into some areas where more people live, to connect them with the kind of care that we offer. I think we’ve got a good thing going and I’d like to share it with more people.
I think, too, that we need to keep getting the finances right. I want to keep on getting stronger and stronger financially because I want to pay people better, give them better benefits, and offer our services as affordably as possible.
So those are the three areas where I think we need to keep improving.
ELF: If you look forward 50 years, after you and I are gone, tell me what HOPE has that gives you hope that its mission will still be going full steam?
JD: (Pauses) I think it really does come back to the relationship. Within a relationship, when you can really know somebody and give them that safe space to share their fears, their vulnerabilities - the things that trouble them physically, emotionally, spiritually – when you give people that safe space. Over all, and above all, just providing that relationship, that companionship and a safe space where they can transform and heal – that, THAT is a game changer. I want that to continue. And I hope that is HOPE’s legacy, that no matter how big we grow, that’s something we can always do and always do well.
ELF: What would you want anyone reading this to know about HOPE?
JD: I’m just going to go back to our motto: “Healing begins with HOPE.” And that really is true. The first step toward healing is to have hope that you can get better, to have hope that your life can improve, to have hope that your life means something and that you can go somewhere – and to provide support for people to do that.
Yeah, that’s how I would probably end – that healing begins with hope, and HOPE is here to provide that spark of hope for its patients. Maybe another way you could put it is that we’re here to give people their hope back again.