Biblical Guidelines for Benevolent Care for the Needy—and Others
by William T. Griffin, DDS
Today's Christian Doctor - Summer 2003
Practice Management by the Book-Part III
Many CMDA members have spent countless weeks caring for the needs of the poor all around the world. We pay our own expenses and gladly donate our time, practicing our healing profession in primitive conditions, in return for the privilege of being part of Christ’s plan to draw all men unto Himself (John 12:32).
Upon returning to our private practices, however, we find that, in order to keep food on the table and clothes on our backs, we need to charge most of our patients for our services. Some of our patients find it difficult or impossible to pay for the treatment we render, thereby creating a dilemma for both them and us. How do we go about discerning the Lord’s will with respect to benevolent care in our private practices?
Should We Help The Poor?
The Scriptures speak to different sides of this issue, and our decisions with regard to benevolent care should be made by taking multiple factors into account. We see in God’s Word that some are poor because of circumstances beyond their control (Luke 16:20-25), while others are poor because of laziness (Proverbs 6:10,11). When we donate our services to the first group, it could be a major mutual blessing (Matthew 25:50). However, to subsidize slothfulness by giving our services away to the second group may be a disservice to them, as it could serve as a roadblock to their discovering their own sin, which must be acknowledged in order for them to someday come to see their need for a Savior. Most often we will not know the reason a particular patient might be poor, however, in which case it is better to opt on the side of grace when possible.
But My Practice Is Too Busy To See Patients For Free…
One Might attempt to counter this objection to helping the poor by saying that if one is too busy to care for the needy, then the practice is just too busy. However, there are major obstacles to treating the poor during regular office hours that might lead a well-meaning practitioner to look for alternatives. For example, it can be difficult during the course of a busy day of decision making to be able to determine which patients to treat benevolently. Sometimes the demands of the physical needs presented to us require our undivided attention, and making financial decisions on the fly can be a distraction to the job at hand. In addition, if one wants their charitable care to be used as a way to point to Christ, there isn’t always time to give a reason for the hope that is in us (I Peter 3:15). Is there an alternative to rendering care for the needy during the course of our normal busy practices?
Many Christian physicians and dentists have found that the best way to treat the poor is by working in clinics designed specifically for this purpose. In this way, there is no financial decision making, and the practitioner is also more likely to be able to explain to the patient their need for Christ, and His sufficiency as a Savior. The best such clinics are those which see patients through a screening network of local churches. In this way, patients seeking care must go through members of the body of Christ, thereby creating a potential for them to hear of the love of God from other sources in addition to those providing the healthcare. This multiplied effect of the Body of Christ, so evident in the first-century church (Acts 2:42-47) can be used by the Lord to change even the most stubborn of hearts.
Even if a Christian doctor does spend time working in a free clinic, there will still be situations in which patients in their private practice are in need of financial assistance. I am aware of no passage in the Bible that relieves us of the responsibility to prayerfully consider what the Lord would have us to do in these situations. It does seem, though, that when we give away our services for free or at reduced rates, we should look for ways to give God the glory (Acts 12:21-23). Jesus once said, “The poor you have with you always, but you do not always have Me” (Matthew 26:11). In speaking with patients about the Lord, it is a very natural transition to distinguish between the care we offer them, which is temporal in nature, and the salvation Jesus offers, which is of eternal benefit (2 Corinthians 4:18).
I’ve God Time To Treat The Poor, But No Time To Share The Gospel With Them.
When we provide care for a needy patient – perhaps remove a bad tooth, or offer a prescription – there isn’t always time to give a personal explanation of our ultimate motivation. In this case, it is good to have on hand some literature that can be given to the patient – perhaps a short paperback book or a tract. The best tract will be one that is customized to your practice, rather than one purchased off the shelf at a Christina bookstore. Contact me for an example of a tract that I use in my practice.
What About Treating Clergy And Missionaries?
One approach to benevolent care that I currently use is geared specifically for ministers and missionaries whom I see on a regular basis. Each December I review the list of those I treat regularly, and I offer many of them a credit to their account in a specific dollar amount. I send them a short note to inform them of their credit, and to wish them a “Merry Christmas.” The size of the credit would depend upon factors such as the size of their families and the condition of their mouths. This allows them a certain amount of care at no charge during the upcoming year.
For ministers and missionaries who are seen on a sporadic basis, a different approach is needed. Some offices have a standard policy of treating all clergy and missionaries for free. Such an across-the-board policy is very generous, but a large number of recipients could significantly affect the remaining funds available for staff salaries and other overhead costs. It also doesn’t take into account the fact that not all clergy are financially needy. With practice overhead, costs in the 60-70 percent range in most dental offices, it would be a gracious move on the part of the practitioner to require the patient to pay a portion of the normal fee, perhaps 25-50 percent, especially when the treatment involves extensive laboratory costs being borne by the doctor. When overhead costs are minimal for a particular procedure, it becomes more feasible for the doctor to write off the entire fee for services.
Should I Offer Professional Discounts?
I would strongly encourage physicians and dentists to rethink the common policy of offering “professional discounts” to all fellow healthcare providers. First, most of us can afford to pay fair fees for what we receive. Secondly, if these discounts were redirected to those who truly were in need of them, it would seem to be of greater service to “the least of My brethren” (Matthew 25:40, Proverbs 22:16).
So What’s The Point?
The apostle Paul wrote, “For you know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though He was rich, yet for your sake He became poor, that you through His poverty might become rich” (2 Corinthians 8:9). It is doubtful that those of us in private practice will literally become “poor.” Nonetheless, when we purposely give away our treatment in the name of the One who has saved us, this can be a great encouragement to our brothers and sisters in Christ. In addition, we shouldn’t be surprised when some of the unbelievers we treat eventually enter into the spiritual richness found only in our Savior.