When Dr. Sharon Lee thinks about Wyandotte County, she’s not thinking of last place health rankings or the 60 percent high school graduation rate.
She thinks about a patient – 27 years old – who is on renal dialysis after years of being unable to afford insulin. She thinks of the year she spent trying to get another woman, poor and uninsured, a hysterectomy to stop her bleeding.
Lee doesn’t see the statistics and figures that rank the northeastern Kansas county the unhealthiest in the state. She stares proof in the face five days a week as a safety net physician in the heart of Kansas’ poorest county.
“Our society has decided that if we fail you long enough, and now you are in an extreme situation, then we’ll help you,” Lee, executive director of Southwest Boulevard Family Health Care, said. “The bottom line is, if we don’t have health care for everybody, these kinds of things are going to continue.”
Wyandotte County has a population of about 155,000, about a fifth of whom live below the poverty line. More than one in four Wyandotte children live in poverty. The teen birth rate is more than triple the state target and only 60 percent of students graduate from high school.
For those reasons, among others, the county has consistently ranked dead last for health factors and outcomes.
A study produced by the Kansas Health Institute in 2009 ranked Wyandotte last among the state’s 105 counties regarding health and socioeconomic factors. A 2010 County Health Rankings study that compared counties throughout the country reported the same.
The latter study ranked Johnson County, Wyandotte’s affluent neighbor to the south, as third healthiest in Kansas, with a graduation rate of 89 percent. Jackson County, Wyandotte’s KC metro counterpart across the Missouri state line, ranked 64th among 115 Missouri counties, with a graduation rate of 74 percent.
In response to the dismal rankings, Joe Reardon, mayor of the Unified Government of Wyandotte County/Kansas City, Kan., created a task force last year. The Healthy Communities Wyandotte Steering Committee has 19 members from various organizations and held its third meeting Jan. 26, though it has yet to take any action.
History of Inactivity
The efforts of this committee are just getting underway, but health care task forces are nothing new to Wyandotte County.
Lee was a member of a county health task force about six years ago. She said Reardon’s task force was the county’s fourth since she started practicing medicine 20 years ago.
“As far as I can tell, there’s not been one concrete thing that has happened with any of the task forces,” Lee said. “There’s been lots and lots of talk, and while they’re talking, things have gotten a lot worse.”
The new health task force is different than previous ones because of its focus on outcome-driven programs and its efforts to seek community input, said Joe Connor, director of the Unified Government’s health department. One recent meeting drew 62 participants.
But Lee isn’t holding out much hope, mainly because the task force doesn’t include a voice from the safety net community.
“Where the rubber hits the road is in the clinics,” she said. “My main concern is that if you don’t invite people to the table who are going to bring some creative ideas, you just keep doing the same thing.”
Mike Dorsey, chief executive of Providence Medical Center and a member of the task force steering committee, shared Lee’s sentiments about past inactivity but is more optimistic about what the new group might produce.
“Three years ago, I was very frustrated because there’s a lot of people talking about it, but nothing was really coming together,” he said. “In the last year, a lot of work has been done to look at health in the community.”
Signs of change
Tangible action from the committee won’t be seen for about another three months, Connor said. However, private community efforts already have begun to take root.
One of the most talked about efforts is the 63,000 square-feet expansion of Wyandotte’s Swope Health Services, which is at 21 North 12th St.
After two years of planning, the project should break ground soon and open in July, said Michael Mayberry, executive director with Community Health Council of Wyandotte County. The expansion will double the safety net’s size and triple its patient volume to about 12,000 a year.
A $15.5 million center designed to improve early childhood education and family support opened June 8. The University of Kansas’ 72,000 square-feet Children’s Campus of Kansas City combines three existing programs, all of which have been at capacity – about 1,000 families – since it opened.
Also, Wyandotte High School, with the help of the University of Kansas Medical Center, could get a health clinic as early as this spring. And the Health Forward Foundation has invested millions to increase access to healthy food and health care in the county.
Some of Wyandotte’s problems, such as high homicide and unemployment rates, aren’t directly addressed by clinic expansions. But improving access to care addresses some of the main factors behind the county’s failing health grades, including a physician shortage and a high incidence of adult smoking and teen pregnancy.
It’s too early to tell how far the various efforts will go toward improving Wyandotte County’s health ranking, but the list of proposed and ongoing projects is expansive. And most say recent efforts differ from those of the past because they bring more people and community groups together.
“We’ve always had the motivation and the desire to do more in Wyandotte County, we’ve just been doing it alone,” Mayberry said. “Now we’re going to do it together.”