A Conversation about the Church’s New Health Missionaries


Interview with Dr. James O. Mason

At last October’s general conference, an announcement of far-reaching proportions was made when President Harold B. Lee of the First Presidency asked Dr. James O. Mason, commissioner of the Church’s newly established Health Services Corporation, to review for the priesthood membership assembled throughout the world (viewing and listening via special video and telephonic hookup) the new health missionary program of the Church.

Since that time, “interest in the program has been great. We have many qualified members of the Church who are looking for this kind of service,” says Brother Mason, who, previous to the Health Services appointment, was Atlanta (Georgia) Stake President and Deputy Director of the National Center for Disease Control.

Subsequent to our December printing of Dr. Mason’s conference talk (December, page 37), the New Era received many calls and letters asking for more information. So we visited Brother Mason and recorded the following conversation.—Jay M. Todd, Managing Editor

Q—What is meant when we talk about the health missionary program?

Dr. Mason—This is an actual missionary experience where professionally qualified men and women with training in the health sciences receive mission calls to serve through utilizing those skills. The ultimate aim of the program is to help people to assist themselves through a priesthood correlated program.

Q—You said call. Is this the same kind of call as that given to regular missionaries?

Dr. Mason—Absolutely. The procedure is the same all down the line—interview with bishop and stake president, physical examination, all the usual steps. Then the recommendation is sent to the Church Missionary Committee, with a notation that this person has special health skills in medicine, dentistry, nursing, sanitation, or nutrition. If the Missionary Committee and the president of the Church concur, a call is issued to the person to serve on a health mission.

Q—Is a health mission traditional or standard in other aspects, such as length, being self-sustaining, being assigned to a companion, and following missionary rules?

Dr. Mason—Traditional in every way. A health missionary will serve the same length of time as a proselyting missionary—single elder, two years; single sister, eighteen months; married couple, eighteen months. Under special circumstances there may be some short-term calls too. Each health missionary enters the mission field with the same requirement to be self-sustaining, and he will be assigned companions and be required to observe mission rules. I hope it’s clear by now that these are missionaries indeed. They serve under a mission president and are responsible to him as are all missionaries.

Q—Do we have any health missionaries serving now, and if so, where are they serving?

Dr. Mason—The first two health missionaries began in August, 1971, and calls have been issued to nine others who arrived in their mission fields in February and March. The two who have been serving since August are a physician in the Samoa Mission and a nurse in the Tonga Mission. The others who have been called are nurses who serve in the Southwest Indian, Guatemala, Bolivia, Andes-Peru, and Samoa missions.

Q—In reality, how does a health missionary prepare for the mission field? What does a health missionary do?

Dr. Mason—Let’s illustrate with the nurses who were called to Latin America. They entered the Language Training Mission, just like any other missionary assigned to a foreign-language mission. There they studied Spanish and the customs, culture, and nature of the people with whom they were to work. They were also required to complete other studies. Most doctors and nurses from the United States, Canada, and western Europe have been trained to work in well-equipped hospitals and clinics. The health missionaries, however, will be responsible for providing health concepts rather than health care. So, they have to undergo a little retraining so that they can work effectively in an environment where there may not be another doctor or nurse in the community and where major health problems relate to malnutrition and absence of health services. In the Language Training Mission the health missionaries are instructed to help them adjust to the health conditions they will find in their field of labor.

Take the example of Dr. Blair Bybee. After his call he received additional training in parasitology and nutrition. He was then sent to a Latter-day Saint hospital in a rural area so that he could gain experience in that situation.

Q—How long was this extra training in the rural hospital?

Dr. Mason—Two weeks.

Q—What happens when the health missionary arrives in his field of labor?

Dr. Mason—For the first five months of Elder Bybee’s mission, he performed as any other missionary would. He was a junior companion in a small village. During this time his responsibilities were divided between proselyting (70 percent) and health service (30 percent), as he learned the language and the customs of the Samoan people. Then in January he ended his preparation period and began concentrating on his specific health mission responsibilities. He was assigned by the mission president to create a health education and disease prevention program for all the Saints in Samoa. Appropriate health lessons that had been developed with the help of the BYU faculty and then translated into Samoan during the first five months of his mission were ready for use. He began conducting health seminars in conjunction with district conferences throughout the mission. He is lecturing in village after village—wherever we have a chapel—to members and nonmembers—anyone who wishes to attend—on such subjects as nutrition, alcoholism, baby care, home sanitation, the evils of tobacco, and so forth.

Q—Will there be any association between his message and the Church?

Dr. Mason—Definitely. People know they are being taught by a Latter-day Saint physician. Questions come up about good eating habits, and the health missionary reviews basic health facts and our beliefs concerning those matters in the Word of Wisdom. This leads, naturally, to revelation, the need for a prophet, and, of course, you’re right back to the First Vision at that point. However, the health missionaries will not emphasize religion in the traditional sense. With this low-key approach the health missionaries can open up many doors to the gospel message.

We also anticipate that through the health missionary programs our Mormon families can be healthier than their nonmember neighbors. If our Latter-day Saint children have rosy cheeks and are vigorous and strong, we hope their nonmember neighbors will say, “Look at that Church. It not only helps them understand their relationship to God and his commandments but also teaches them how to live better and healthier. We want to learn about that Church.” One can’t and wouldn’t want to limit the influence of the health missionary to only members of the Church. You can’t improve health in a community without helping everyone. So we hope the program can be an example and blessing to others, as well as to our own people.

Q—What kind of work will the health missionary’s companion be involved in? Will he be a professional also?

Dr. Mason—No. Generally we do not want him to be a professional. The best companion for a health missionary is a person born and raised in the country. He or she would understand the language and customs and know best how to teach the people. Take as an example Sister Marilyn Lyons, the health missionary in Tonga. A Tongan lady missionary was assigned as Sister Lyon’s companion. We are trying to give on-the-job training to the companions as they assist. By rotating companions, several young Tongan sisters will get the opportunity to learn by assisting. In this way, our health missionaries will constantly be training and educating other Latter-day Saints who will remain and continue to teach and uplift their people. Sister Lyons, who has a master’s degree in nursing education, is working closely with the Liahona High School, our Church high school in Tonga, to set up a nurses aide teaching program so that a new vocational curriculum can be added to the school.

Q—Does this mean that the mission’s use of a health missionary will in part reflect the skills of the particular missionary?

Dr. Mason—That is exactly right. In time a general pattern may develop, but for right now we anticipate that most health missionaries will have some unique assignments relating to their particular background and the specific needs of Church members.

Q—Will all of a health missionary’s time be taken up in health teaching and the giving of lectures?

Dr. Mason—No. The health missionary and his companion may often have opportunities to teach the gospel, especially in the evenings. The companion assigned to a health missionary may be the proselyting senior companion.

Q—What is the role of the Health Services Corporation in all this?

Dr. Mason—This is a very vital question and one that everyone needs to understand. These health missionaries are not serving under the Health Services Corporation. They are called by the regular missionary channels of the Church, and they serve under the mission presidents in their fields of labor. Our role is advisory and supportive—that is, we assist the General Authorities and the Missionary Committee in their assignments. They ask us to provide technical background, including medical literature and teaching materials. Consequently, we have assisted in developing a library of health education materials that are being translated into many languages. We see that the health missionaries receive all they need in order to perform their specific labors—pamphlets, filmstrips, booklets, teaching materials of all sorts. The health missionaries are part of a priesthood correlated program—spending time teaching mission/district and stake/ward priesthood and auxiliary leaders so that their health skills can be multiplied many, many times over through the services of visiting teachers, home teachers, and other on-going Church programs.

Q—From your description of a health missionary’s efforts, it appears that they will labor in preventive medicine more than in curing people who already have disease.

Dr. Mason—This is correct. Our emphasis is on disease prevention and health education. We’re not getting involved to any great extent in curative medicine. Major practical problems begin to present themselves when you attempt to do that, including licensure, liability, and expensive physical facilities. The Lord has given us a pattern in the Word of Wisdom; it doesn’t cure cancer of the lung or emphysema caused by violation of its principles. Instead, through health education, it tells us how to prevent these and other diseases. The health missionary program is also founded on prevention through education.

Q—You mentioned earlier some possible short-term missions.

Dr. Mason—There are numerous professionally and vocationally trained members of the Church who would love to serve. Many, however, with families and employment obligations cannot leave home for extended periods of time. Moreover, some problems related to health, agriculture, and other areas require only short-term consultation. Since travel to distant countries can be expensive, one has to weigh the cost of travel against the good that can be accomplished in a brief assignment. A lot of thought is being given to short-term missions.

A recent, somewhat pioneering experience indicates what might be accomplished with short-term missions. Two Utah doctors spent several weeks in Bolivia during December working with local Latter-day Saint physicians to establish clinics at our Church buildings. This short-term consultation was highly successful.

We want to be sure that every call, including possible short-term calls, involves a meaningful assignment. This is more difficult than it appears. When the severe earthquake occurred in Peru several years ago, many physicians went down there from the United States, Russia, Australia, and other countries. One of Peru’s greatest problems was figuring out what to do with these doctors who were milling around without supplies, organization, or purpose. Every call made by the Church must be well planned and responsive to local need.

Q—How did this health missionary program come about?

Dr. Mason—It had its roots in the development of the stake social and health services committees that are being implemented all over the Church under the direction of the General Authorities. In each stake qualified people are being called by the stake presidents to be a resource to bishops in meeting the social and health needs of stake members. As the Brethren continued to look at the situation to see if they could apply it throughout the Church, it became apparent that an interesting contrast existed. In stakes the most acute unmet needs were social and emotional, whereas in the missions and far-flung outposts of the Church the greatest apparent problems were related to health. Where our health needs were the greatest, qualified personnel were the fewest. The larger, more highly organized stakes generally have qualified personnel to satisfy nearly all of their own needs, whether health or social. The health missionary program was developed to assist the missions with needed professional resources.

Q—What do you see for the future in this program?

Dr. Mason—When President Lee asked me to speak in the priesthood session of general conference, he said, “When you mention the health missionary program, expand it to include more than physicians, dentists, and nurses.” He mentioned, specifically, social workers, teachers, agriculturists and people with knowledge in home industry and marketing. It was quite a list, and it’s easy to see that we are right on the threshold of a great and exciting period in the Church when the professional and vocational skills of members will be called upon to bless Saints around the world. The program is starting small, as it is now; but I feel some truly remarkable things are going to be accomplished in the next few years.

Q—Many youth who read this article will dream of serving a health mission in time. What would you say to them?

Dr. Mason—I feel very strongly that a person should be prepared to fill a mission whenever the call comes. For most young men, this is going to be when they are nineteen years of age, before they complete their professional or vocational training. Their calls will be to preach the gospel—our most important missionary responsibility. It may be a little different for the sisters, because they are not called on a mission until they are a few years older, but most of them still will be called to proselyting missions.

I went on my mission just prior to entering medical school, and that experience was invaluable as I obtained my medical training. Whatever the call—proselyting or health mission—the person must first be prepared spiritually. That is first priority. He must have a testimony and knowledge of the gospel of Jesus Christ and must be applying the principles Jesus taught. Of second priority, but of extreme importance, is preparation for economic independence in some field that provides an opportunity for service, such as carpentry, teaching, social work, agriculture, or medicine. These skills can be used in reaching out and lifting up our brothers and sisters who are in need. By meeting these two priorities, the individual has prepared himself to serve the Lord in whatever way he is needed as determined by the leaders of the Church.

[photo] Tongan Mission President James P. Christensen and health missionary Sister Marilyn Lyons (backs to camera) talk with a young Tongan suffering from cerebral palsy. Other Tongan members look on.