Topeka health care organization puts new focus on addressing health equity

Topeka's Stormont Vail launched a new initiative to gather improved data on race and ethnicity to get a better understanding of local health equity issues.
Published: Jun. 1, 2023 at 10:29 PM CDT
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TOPEKA, Kan. (WIBW) - Ensuring everyone has the chance to live their healthiest life is the goal behind health equity.

It’s a renewed focus for state and federal health agencies, and also for health care providers in Topeka.

Emerson Frazier says she’s seen loved ones encounter barriers to health care. It’s why she’s embracing her role as Director of Health Equity and Policy at Stormont Vail.

“I want to be a part of the solution, not only for the people that I love, but also for the community that I love, too,” she said.

Stormont added the position a year ago. Since then, Frazier has been pouring over data, spotting trends, and working to figure out what stands in the way of people becoming their healthiest selves.

“We as a health care system are aiming to better understand where those barriers exist so that we can strategically place programs in those spaces to help those communities or any communities that are facing disparities,” she said.

Pieces of the puzzle are scattered among agencies. A Kansas Health Matters report shows, among Kansans on Medicare, those who are Black had a 57 percent higher rate of preventable hospital stays in 2021; American Indians had a nearly 22 percent higher rate.

Kansas Dept. of Health and Environment data shows Black infants are two times more likely to die than white infants in Kansas.

Other reports detail the COVID impact. While people who are Black make up 6.1 percent of the Kansas population, they comprised about 25 percent of COVID-related deaths. Kansans who are Hispanic or Latino were eight times more likely to contract COVID.

Frazier came across a study on a key tool used during COVID to spot complications.

“In one of the studies, it surfaced that pulse oximeters were not as effective on individuals who had more pigmentation in their skin, and therefore health care providers were not able to identify issues and lower oxygen levels in those patients as they were with patients with less pigmentation or white patients,” she explained.

Not all disparities stem from race or ethnicity.

“You can also have disparities in socio-economic outcomes, in gender identity and sexual orientation, in language,” Frazier said.

A survey in KDHE’s Healthy Kansans 2030 report, released in May 2022, found 34 percent of single mother households experience poverty, and 48.5 percent of Kansans went without care because of cost.

Getting to the “why” and breaking through some of those barriers is where Dana Blindt, MSN, director of Care Transformation at Stormont, and her team come in.

“Some people may not be able to afford their medication, so they’re not going to pick it up. They’re not going to take it. That’s where we step in and try to figure out some financial assistance for those patients. If they don’t have food, they’ll pick something not so healthy to eat,” Blindt said of some of the barriers they see.

The care transformation team of RN care managers, social workers and community resource reps are stationed in the Cotton O’Neil Clinic offices. They’ll screen patients for social determinants of health, and are proactive in connecting them with resources to address their needs.

“Transportation is a huge issue in our community,” Blindt said. “It’s not just as easy as seeing the doctor and out the door you go. We’ve stepped in and wrapped our arms around the community and tried to figure out how to make our community healthier.”

Taking it to the next level, Blindt and Frazier say, will require better information. This week, Stormont launched the “We Ask Because We Care Campaign.” It urges patients to opt-in to answering questions about their race and ethnic background. They stress the information is kept private and protected, but is important.

“Data is the backbone of understanding disparities and understanding where we’re making improvements and where the solutions that we thought would help...aren’t,” Frazier said.

It’s hoped new information can guide the care transformation teams and forge even deeper, more targeted community partnerships.

“We’re trying to get our community to their optimal health. Everybody deserves it,” Blindt said.

“If there’s any person out there where I can make a difference to make their life one percent better, I’m going to do that, and that’s why I show up,” Frazier said.

Improving disparities in health and health outcomes, and improving access to care are among the four priorities in KDHE’s Healthy Kansans 2030 state health improvement plan.