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Episode 2 - Dr. Scott Morris

Dr. Scott Morris

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Jay Myers: Welcome to Extra Innings. I'm your host Jay Myers and I am delighted today to speak to a good friend of mine. A man I call the MVP of Memphis, Dr. Scott Morris. He runs the Church Health Center. I really appreciate you being on the show today Scott and giving the audience a chance to hear your story because I feel like it's so compelling. Thank you again for being on the show! Can you give us a little bit of your background?

Scott Morris: Jay, thanks for having me! I grew up in Atlanta. The way I got to Memphis and started doing the work I do with Church Health is: As a kid, I was always interested in the Church. But the thought of preaching 52 sermons a year sent shivers down my spine. Still does! I have no idea how anybody can do that.

As a kid, I read the Bible. A third of the Bible is about healing the sick. It's on every page. But churches didn't seem to take it very seriously. All around the country we have hospitals with church names on them. They do good work, but they have almost nothing to do with worshipping congregations. So it seemed to me that there ought to be more to it than that. So, I decided I was going to head out into a career based around Medicine and Ministry. It was either that or pitch for the Atlanta Braves, but for reasons, I don't understand the Braves never called.

So I had to go down this other path! I went to college. I went to seminary. I spent most of my time in seminary looking at what the church had historically done and came to realize there's a reason that these hospitals have church names on them, but we just forgot. Then one day I was at the chaplain's office at the Yale Medical School and there was a little pamphlet on his desk that read "How To Start A Church-Based Health Center."

I thought..."That's it! That's what I want to do." There are a lot of people who care about the link between faith and health. It's not just me. I finished college and seminary. I went to medical school. I did my residency to be a family doctor and was ready to start my own Church-Based health clinic. I wanted to stay in the South. I didn't want to go back to Atlanta and then I read somewhere that Memphis is the poorest major city in America. Based on that, I decided I was going to Memphis. At that point, I didn't know a soul here. I was 33 years old. I was too young and too dumb to realize that what I wanted to do had no chance to succeed. But I came to Memphis and began selling out of an empty cart that became church health. The focus was to provide healthcare for people who work in low-wage jobs who don't have health insurance.

That's our niche. We take care of the people who work to make our lives comfortable. They cook our food, they take care of our children, they wash our dishes, they cut our grass, and will one day dig our graves. They don't complain, yet when they get sick, their options are very few. We started in 1987 we saw 12 people the first day we were open but have grown to where there are more than 70,000 people in Memphis who depend on Church Health for their healthcare. We're not a federally funded anything. We're a true charity. We have to raise 20 million dollars a year to keep our doors open and we've become the largest faith-based, privately funded health center in America.

Jay Myers: That's just an amazing story. We've spoken in the past about this. You're obviously a minister. You've got so many things, a medical doctorate, etc. But I don't think you've ever actually admitted that you're a salesman as well. And I realized as I looked at your bio and background that your father was quite the salesman. Is that correct?

Scott Morris: It's amazing that you ask that. My father, as of this week, at the age of 89, just retired from being a salesman. So yea, my father has the best job in the world for him in that he sells air. He's one of the greatest hawkers you've ever met, but he sells radio time and has been doing that for a long time.

Jay Myers: It sounds like I could learn a lot from him. So with your father being a salesman, I would suspect that whether or not you're willing to admit it, that you're a salesman as well. How did you sell all of the physicians in the Memphis area to come to work for you for no pay? To volunteer their time? How did that work?

Scott Morris: So we have 30 doctors on our staff, but we have a thousand doctors who volunteer with us. That's not a made-up number. That was actually the easiest part of what we do. Every doctor I know goes to medical school because they "want to help people." As they go down the path of their career that still is a part of every last one of us. It didn't take much effort at all to go to doctors to say: "I need your help to take care of the people who are making our lives more comfortable. And I just need a little bit of your time."

That's really the most important aspect of what we do. I don't ask the doctor to worry about how to pay for the CT scan or how to get people admitted to the hospital. I just need some of their time. And in 34 years of doing this, I've only had one doctor tell me no.

Jay Myers: That's just amazing! So, as an entrepreneur, you built an organization. For most entrepreneurs, there's a critical turning point where you had to make a decision to either keep moving forward or maybe conceivably give up and do something else. Did you ever have a moment in time when you were building church health that this ever came to mind?

Scott Morris: Truthfully? No. As I was growing up and telling people that I was going to go to seminary and medical school some people including my father thought I should go to medical school first because they didn't think I would do both things. But I had a passion for it. I actually personally believe that God was calling me to do this work and I was in it for the long haul. I knew there wasn't a quick and easy fix for doing this. And it's pretty much been that same way for 34 years. I knew that the need was there. I knew that I had the skill set to do this and I just believed that what Church Health did was to give people an opportunity to make a difference in other people's lives. I believe that most people's hearts are good and want to do that. I think I've been proven right.

Jay Myers: Well you've done a terrific job. You're such a credit to the community.

Another question. With the success of Church Health, I know you moved from some pretty humble facilities to the wonderful facility at Crosstown---are there other cities in the U.S. that have used you and Church Health as a model to build their own programs?

Scott Morris: Yes. Many years ago I said that if by the time I retired Church Health only existed in the form that it does here in Memphis that I would pretty much have felt that it was a failure. Because what I believe is that this work is something that every community and every congregation of faith is expected to do. We were trying to create a reproducible model. Today there is an entity called ECHO (Empowered Church Health Opportunities), that is under the Church Health umbrella and it is out there trying to connect communities all over the country to build clinics similar to church health. There are currently 62 clinics that are up and going around the country. Literally earlier today I was talking to people in the middle part of Michigan who are working to create a clinic that would look very similar to ours.

These clinics are in Texas, Georgia, New York, L.A, literally all over the country. And there are another 30 that are on the drawing board that we believe will open in the next year or two.

Jay Myers: That's amazing! You know something else I'm curious about since I've been around Church Health for a few years now is the quality of your employees and their enthusiasm. Can you tell me more about that? It just seems like there's a spirit there that you don't see in a lot of businesses.

Scott Morris: I appreciate you saying that! We're a service company and you're only as good as your people. You don't get rich providing healthcare for the poor. We don't attract people based on our salaries, but we try and pay a fair and reasonable salary. What we do is give people a true opportunity to serve, to make a difference. We try to create an environment where people love being here. For the second time, we were a finalist for the Memphis Business Journal's "Best Places to Work." Our staff does like being here, but we give people a job opportunity that doesn't exist out in the private sector. You get to do good and take healthcare seriously. We've created an environment that is fun to work in.

Jay Myers: It sounds like you take care of your employees, too. That's obviously key to any success.

Another question that has nothing to do with Church Health. So let's talk baseball! Since we're both baseball nuts. Obviously, you're a big Braves fan and I'm a big Yankees fan and you and I have talked in the past. So tell me about where you developed your love for baseball.

Scott Morris: I think I have loved baseball since the time I could walk. Right over my head is a picture of Hank Aaron. So my uncle (by marriage) married my mother's sister. He was a guy named Bob Sadowsky and he pitched for the Atlanta Crackers in the 1960s. This was on the St Louis Cardinals AAA team. And Tim McCarver and Bill Gagliano, two good Memphis guys, played on that team. Eventually, my uncle Bob got traded to the Milwaukee Braves and when I was 10 years old, I got on a plane and flew from Atlanta to Milwaukee. I get off the plane and then taken to a team party at Eddie Matthews’s house where I meet Hank Aaron. That picture is from that trip in 1964. So that made me a Braves fan for life. People think I’m an Atlanta Braves fan because I grew up in Atlanta. No. If the Braves were still in Milwaukee I would be a Milwaukee Braves fan. But God ultimately smiled on me because they moved from Milwaukee to Atlanta

Jay Myers: Well gee I mean that that's quite a story I can't match it. I did meet Whitey Ford one time and took a picture, with him, got an autograph and it was pretty special as well, but that's a great story. I’ve never heard that one before so that's really fun.

So Scott, when you look at a lot of us entrepreneurs and everything---when building up your business at Church Health (and I know I did this in my business) you had people that helped you along the way that you look to for assistance mentors. Who are some of the folks that you really looked up to through the years that helped you along the way?

Scott Morris: I think of myself as a pastor who acquired a particular skill so, even though I spend my life playing doctor (and I’m truly grateful that people like you think of me as an entrepreneur), my head sort of lives in the church and the mentors in my life are people who come down that path. The true mentor in my life was a guy named Williamson Coffin.

Coffin was the chaplain at Yale University back in the 60s. He ended up marrying Mary and me. He’s just a true prophet of God in my book. He was a person who just had a grasp of how God expects us to live our lives. In that regard, Bill Coffin was a person that had all sorts of little pithy sayings that are often referred to as his Coffin-isms. However, they can be very astute. One of my favorites is: There's no smaller package than a man all wrapped up in himself.

Coffin, in terms of inspiration, defined faith as jumping off a cliff and then growing wings.

But having somebody like that in your life, I think, is really important, and if I had to pick one person that would be it

Jay Myers: That's quite a story! I think it is important not to dismiss the fact that as an entrepreneur you had to build something out of nothing. I think that’s the essence of entrepreneurship and why you've done so well.

You are also an author and you've written a number of books. Tell me a little bit about that whole process of what compelled you to do it. I know I’ve read several of them and love them and you're a great storyteller. What compelled you to want to write a book? It's not easy, as you and I both know.

Scott Morris: No. Writing a book and getting it published, particularly in today's world, is a hard slay. I think the work that we do is really important. To your point of asking me earlier, if there are other clinics similar to church health around the country.

I think it's a burden that I bare myself to be able to tell the story so that other communities can follow suit. The fact of the matter is that (and people just don't realize this) in America, prior to the civil war, if you were sick, the most likely person anybody would have seen for healthcare was actually a pastor. Pastors provided all the healthcare in this country. The responsibility that the church and people of faith have when caring for our bodies is just a story that most people don't realize or don’t know. That6 really is the essence of almost everything I write about. I try to create a historical context to this, but then try to help answer the question of how I can do this in my own community.

Jay Myers: That's terrific. I know the first book that I read of yours really gave me insight into the mission that you all are doing there and wanting me and my wife to be involved. It’s just really very compelling. So job well done on that, Scott! You and I aren't spring chickens anymore. So what’s next for you?

What's the future look like for Dr. Scott Morris in the next two to five years?

Scott Morris: I get asked literally every day, four or five times, what my succession plan is. I can assure you, Church Health and our board have a very strong succession plan. You've already pointed out, my senior leadership team is really strong. They're virtually all people in their 40s so I just think that if something happened and a bus hit me tomorrow Church Health is fine operationally.

For me, personally, I learned a phrase from a friend who helped build a not-for-profit in Dallas called City Square, which he refers to as turning out. My plan in the next few years would be to find that person who would take the role of CEO of Church Health. I would still be around, but what I would do would turn out. You know? I would no longer be involved in the day-to-day operation, but would still hopefully bring value to our work.

I would still see patients as a doctor. I still do that virtually every day, and I would still write books and try to tell the story. I would help with raising money at some level, but I don't at that point anticipate myself being involved in the day-to-day operation, and I feel like I am perfectly capable of doing that and I think my senior leaders agree. And I definitely think my board agrees.

Jay Myers: Well, that sounds like you put a lot of thought into your board. Please don't leave Memphis. We need you too bad!

Scott Morris: That's a concept that I struggle with because even though I didn't grow up in Memphis, Memphis is clearly my home, this is where my friends are, and no matter what I just I can't envision leaving Memphis so they'll have to take me out in a pine box.

Jay Myers: Well, thank you for saying that and reassuring us, because I think I speak for everybody in the city of Memphis when I say we need you.

So here’s my last question. For young people out there and other folks in their professional journey: What piece of advice would you give young professionals trying to move forward in their careers? What's worked for you? What do you feel is going to work for them in the future?

Scott Morris: I love being around younger people. Somebody a lot smarter than me once said, you should always over-invest in the young and I feel we have done that at Church Health. We have a number of different programs: A very strong gap year program. We do run a family medicine residency training young doctors in Church Health way. The one thing that I get frustrated by is that millennials want something very fast. They often times feel like if they did something for two or three years, they can pat themselves on the back and say “what a good boy or girl am,” and the reality is the only way you can do something that matters is, if you sustain it over time. It is very easy to start something, it is really hard to sustain something. To make that happen, you have to be committed to it for an extended period of time.

I try my best to help them understand that because I think it's the only way you can make a difference. Don't go from one thing to the next and the next. It is unlikely you’ll create something that will matter.

Jay Myers: On behalf of all the baby boomers out there, thank you for those remarks.

I will say that I’ve got a bonus extra question. The last one, I promise.

We're dealing with a worldwide pandemic over a year old now and I’m just curious: What has Church Health done to be able to keep moving through this? What are the steps that you've made? I know you and I talked about at one point Telehealth and these kinds of things. Tell us a little bit about what’s going on there in terms of how you're treating patients during this very difficult time.

Scott Morris: March of 2020 was a truly dramatic moment for our work in Church Health. We immediately became involved in issues around testing and we're one of the leaders in Memphis trying to get our Community tested. We ran a drive-through testing site here at cross-town for well over a year. Now, we’re trying to be as front and center about vaccinations as possible. Trying to just keep our doors open was a challenge because (thank God we never lost a provider), we've been open full throttle throughout the entire pandemic. Trying to work safely through masking and all the things we're all are keenly aware of now---I feel like we were quite successful internally

We’ve been encouraging people to get tested, trying to get people vaccinated, and we try to vaccinate about 100 people a day, and right now that is all part of the deal.

In our experience, right now has nothing to do with politics or race. Right, left, black, white Latino. Everybody's got some reason they don't want to get vaccinated, you know?

“My third cousin twice removed got vaccinated and his dog died.” That was a real reason I heard for not getting vaccinated.

I mean it's really pretty amazing that they hear it, but you know we try very hard to sit down and encourage people to do it. If we have the time, then the majority of people are now willing to get the shot. We are long past people pushing others out of the way to get it, but it still requires a lot of effort.

Jay Myers: Has telehealth helped you with your patient load and getting access to some of the folks that can't get in to see you and all those kinds of things?

Scott Morris: Yeah. Last March we immediately tried to push into Telehealth and we were successful in ramping it up. It's a fascinating thing in that sense. What we primarily do is deal with working, uninsured people. Oftentimes our patients think of that as second-class medicine. They don't understand that the President of the bank would probably prefer Telehealth.

Our patients often think “Hey you don't want to see me in person. We would have thought by now that Telehealth would have been something that really was a major part of what we do, but it is not accepted.

Our dieticians are never going back to in-person meetings because the patient can take their phone and show the dietitian their refrigerator or their pantry, and we can see in real-time oftentimes what the issues are so that has been a blessing.

But in terms of our physicians seeing people with Telehealth, it's been a struggle.

Now, our Behavioral Health Center has done well. Oftentimes people with depression or anxiety don't want to leave their house anyway and they opt for tele-counseling

It's just been a mixed bag.

Seeing physicians for hypertension, diabetes, though, among our patient population, not so much.

Jay Myers: I could understand that and, of course, you know I’ve been in the Telehealth industry for a long time.

But I appreciate the remark.

Scott, the last remark so listeners out there that want to support Church Health: How can they do that? Go to your website? Where's the best place to help you guys out?

Scott Morris: Thank you, Jay. We have to raise $20 million every year of real money. Our goals are to provide the same quality of care you expect your mother to receive and we do that for the people who are helping us in 1000 ways.

The easiest way is our website, which is just And to click on the Donate Now button. We try to make it really simple.

Jay Myers: That's great. Well, Dr. Scott Morris, thank you so much for your time today. It is really great talking to you and seeing you again, and I really appreciate you being on the show.

Scott Morris: My pleasure Jay. Thanks for all you're doing.
Jay Myers: Thank you.

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