Experts discuss authenticity, relationships, and data around addressing health disparities for underserved


Patrick Jones


A panel of experts spoke about the importance of authenticity, relationship building, and data in positively impacting health outcomes for underserved communities at our 2021 Colorado State of Reform Health Policy Conference


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The panelists included Rep. Leslie Herod (D-Denver), chair of the Colorado Black Democratic Legislative Caucus, Bobby King, vice president of diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) at Colorado Access, Leslye Steptoe, vice president of DEI at Mental Health Center of Denver, and Rayna Hetlage, senior policy manager at Center for Health Progress. 

Hetlage started off by describing the importance of acknowledging the structural nature of systemic racism and the intensive and dedicated work needed to address inequities. 

“What we are talking about here is a really deep problem. There is no quick fix to centuries of systemic racism. People have to be willing to do the work. I hear a lot that folks want this quick, easy solution. They’re tired … but it’s unfortunately not that easy.”

To start addressing these deep rooted issues, the panel highlighted the importance of working with underserved communities and not for them. They expressed the importance of giving community leaders decision-making power over how and which health interventions are carried out. 

According to King, these partnerships come from forming tight-knit, lasting relationships between organizations and the communities they serve to “create bridges of understanding.” This will in turn create lasting partnerships that can better tackle barriers to care and disparities in the health care space. He said:

“If you don’t know people, you cannot serve them.”

Steptoe highlighted the importance of learning and accepting what you don’t know as an organization. She said organizations need to learn from the communities they serve, be vulnerable, put in the work and resources, and be authentic in coming from a position of allyship. She said:

“You need to know what you don’t know, and you’re going to have to pour some resources into that and some time and some effort to do that hard work.” 

Herod discussed the health equity work happening within the state government and the legislature, along with the work that still needs to get done. She highlighted SB 193 and SB194, which lay out the standards of care for pregnant women in prisons and extend the Medicaid eligibility period for new mothers to a year, respectively. This is in response to the low rates of prenatal care visits and high rates of preterm births for Black women in Colorado. 

She said Colorado is heading in the right direction, and industry partners have backed the state in putting resources behind their health equity initiatives. 

“We have great partners who have said, ‘We are not just going to talk about health disparities anymore. We are not just going to acknowledge it and make a statement. But we are going to put resources behind it and make sure that we have the infrastructure in our communities to deal with our negative health outcomes and really improve them.’” 

The panel also highlighted the importance of data collection in starting to understand the barriers within underserved communities. Hetlage said health data is important to identify the issues and to provide a call to action to address the disparities seen through the data. 

She said many organizations without proper data collection use the lack of data as an excuse to continue doing things “the way they have always been done.”