Race, language and ethnicity project pushes for a healthier and more equitable Kansas City


Think about a seemingly simple question: What are the health outcomes of a Black woman versus a white woman in Kansas City?

Seems simple, say members of a Kansas City Health Equity Learning and Action Network working group. But it’s not.

The working group is aiming to change those discrepancies. Members include Blue KC, KC Health Center, Health Forward Foundation, BioNexus KC, KC Health Collaborative, Vibrant Health, KU Medical Center, Sam Rodgers and others.

Wil Franklin, president and CEO of KC CARE Health Center, said some organizations might be doing great work at tracking race, ethnicity and language data that could be a model to others. Others might be using estimates or anecdotal data.

“We can’t quantitatively say, here’s exactly where these types of care gaps lie … specifically connected to race,” he said. “I think it’s important that we track this information regionally and hold ourselves accountable.”

KC CARE serves more than 20,000 patients, many of whom need financial assistance. The center’s goal is to provide unconditional care to all, and he’d like for that to be the norm in Kansas City, versus the exception.

Starting from scratch

The project’s goal is to involve every aspect of the health care space – health clinics such as KC CARE, health departments, hospitals, social-service organizations and insurers.

Blue KC is up for the challenge. Carmen Parker-Bradshaw, the insurer’s division vice president of community health, quality and accreditation, said the start is building trust. The point of this data project isn’t to call out misdeeds by any particular organizations.

“The point is for us all to come together to see, ‘What are we seeing displayed due to systemic racism?’ so that we can all stand for what’s right going forward,” Parker-Bradshaw said.

She said the first step an assessment of what different definitions exist locally around race, ethnicity, preferred language, sexual orientation, gender identity and more.

The next step is figuring out what each organization’s process is for gathering this information, and what their goals are for using the collected data.

Once all the data is in hand, the goal is for Kansas City’s health care community to endorse community-level best practices for data collection.

Then, local organizations could collectively identify gaps in care and the biggest needs and commit to addressing those needs. Commitments could include requesting grants or raising funds around the health care issues deemed most pressing.

Finally, the working group could become a governing body that would be representative of all the area’s health-care organizations.

The project’s goals are bold, Parker-Bradshaw said, but Blue KC and its CEO, Erin Stucky, are up for the challenge. That’s why the insurer has pledged $150,000 toward the work to streamline data collection.

“We really want to see our community leaders engaged and committed to the work as a whole,” Parker-Bradshaw said. “And it takes money to have these conversations to build programs.”

‘Hard conversations along the way’

“I think that we’re just kidding ourselves if we don’t acknowledge that racism and historical white supremacy ideology is at the core of our community health disparities,” Franklin said.

Yet talking about one ethnic group having worse outcomes than another isn’t the hard part, Parker-Bradshaw said.

Most people acknowledge that there are disparities in health conditions of different under-represented groups. There are differences in access to care. And there are racial gaps in health care quality. Where talk gets uncomfortable, she said, is when the talk turns to why those disparities exist.

She said there’s a lot of uncertainty in knowing how to ask questions and knowing what might be considered unintentionally inappropriate. Hard conversations.

The group is in the process of establishing timelines, but Parker-Bradshaw said she thinks the data collection work will extend through 2023.

Data collection is a sensitive subject, so there will be education around what data integrity looks like. There will also be education on health equity happening in parallel with the work.

Getting senior leaders across Kansas City to agree on data collection methods will also take time.

“There’s probably going to be hard conversations along the way, and that’s OK,” Parker-Bradshaw said.

Take a seat at the table

If barriers to health equity could be broken down, in part due to data collection and streamlining, Kansas City could look very different in 15 years, Parker-Bradshaw and Franklin both said. The city could be an example to others.

“I feel like this is our opportunity as a community to say, it’s important and we’re committed to everyone having an equal opportunity to getting and staying healthy,” Parker-Bradshaw said.

And if a Kansas City-area business wants to be involved in the data project, she said all are welcome, whether you’re a health care organization or not.

“There’s a seat at the table, but the work has to start,” she said. “Our community will only thrive if our people are healthier, and our people who have struggled the most – it’s their time. They’ve waited long enough.”

Franklin agreed.

“We’re committed to a more equitable Kansas City,” he said. “I think we can, and should, do better.”