We Are Called: Assessing progress at the one-year mark

February 1, 2022


In February 2021, members of CHA came together to publicly commit to confront racism by achieving health equity. Leaders of the Catholic health ministry pledged to be actively anti-racist, lead through accountability, develop authentic community engagement built on trust and demonstrate measurable impact of this work in the communities Catholic health care is called to serve.

A child hams it up as men get haircuts at JP Hair Design in Madison, Wisconsin. The barbershop is the site of the Men's Health & Education Center, which opened in 2016 with funding from SSM Health. Black men in the community have shorter life spans and higher rates of diabetes and other chronic conditions. The center offers health screenings and health education materials to an underserved population in a trusted setting.

The We Are Called pledge they signed recognizes that the Catholic health ministry — the largest sector of nonprofit health care in the U.S. — can and must do more to eradicate systemic racism and more forcefully address the profound effects racism has on the health and well-being of individuals and communities.

Sr. Mary

CHA members who've joined the We Are Called initiative agree to take action to achieve COVID-19 health equity; examine their own organizations, including how they provide clinical care and recruit staffs that mirror the makeup of their communities; build and strengthen trust with communities of color; and advocate for policies that end health disparities and systemic racism.

"The We Are Called pledge is very much like a pattern that guides us as we weave together a stronger and more just health care tapestry," said Sr. Mary Haddad, RSM, CHA's president and chief executive officer. "Whether it's responding to the pandemic, finding ways to better address the social determinants of health, or working to reduce our carbon footprint, health equity is the thread that connects our collective work."

J. C. Dawkins, an outreach coordinator at the Men's Health & Education Center, talks with a man who visited the facility that is housed inside JP Hair Design in Madison, Wisconsin. The barbershop caters to a largely African American customer base. The health and education center, funded by SSM Health, offers easy access to health screenings and information.

In the year since the pledge was announced, CHA members have launched new initiatives and shared best practices related to long-standing programs aimed at advancing health equity and improving care outcomes for members of underserved minority populations. CHA's webpage chausa.org/we-are-called, includes videos, prayers and stories about how members are tackling the complex challenges before them.

Putting our house in order
A foundational element of the pledge is for members to evaluate their own commitment to diversity, equity and inclusion within their organizations. Signatories commit to achieving diversity and inclusivity including through how they recruit, hire, retain and promote employees and how they build their boards and leadership teams.

"Making sure that system, regional or hospital boards are inclusive and reflect the communities we serve is important to ensure that different voices, perspectives and life experiences are heard when decisions are made," said Dennis Gonzales, co-leader of the We Are Called initiative. He is CHA's senior director of mission innovation and integration. The pledge also requires health care providers to work directly with communities of color to strengthen trust and to listen and respond to what the communities identify as their priorities.

During a CHA webinar in June, Odette Bolano, president and chief executive of Saint Alphonsus Health System in Boise, Idaho, stressed the importance of diversity at the board level to propel change. "We feel comfortable having people that are like us around us and we have to get comfortable with being uncomfortable about having different voices at that table that may make us think differently … that may make us reconsider a strategy that we think is so great," she said.

During a CHA webinar last month, leaders from CHRISTUS Health and Providence St. Joseph Health shared some of the strategies and tactics they've employed when selecting and recruiting board members to ensure greater diversity.

Fr. Tom Haley blesses the Mercy Clinic Primary Care – Ferguson facility at the dedication ceremony in August. The clinic is part of a neighborhood redevelopment in a section of the suburban St. Louis community that was scarred by protests in 2014.

CommonSpirit Health and Morehouse School of Medicine have joined in a 10-year partnership to promote diversity among clinical staff around the country and build an education pipeline that creates a bigger pool of minority doctors. A $100 million investment from CommonSpirit will allow Morehouse, a historically Black institution, to ensure that 300 additional physicians from Black and other minority groups complete medical residencies each year. As part of the effort, Morehouse will open five new regional medical school campuses, expand its medical school enrollment and increase the number of medical students recruited from rural and other underserved communities.

The partnership goes further in addressing health inequity by supporting research into diseases that disproportionately impact minorities.

Throughout the pandemic, CHA and its members have recognized the need to ensure the equitable distribution and availability of personal protective equipment, COVID-19 tests, vaccines and drug therapies.

When COVID vaccines first became widely available in early 2021, Dr. Reginald Eadie, president and chief executive of Trinity Health of New England, met with representatives of communities of color and faith leaders to listen to their concerns about the vaccines and establish a foundation of respect and trust.

"I am making sure that they know everything about the vaccine, so there are no secrets," Eadie explained during a CHA podcast.

Eadie's outreach efforts are just one example of CHA members making the extra effort to reach diverse and often marginalized groups of people to encourage vaccine understanding and acceptance.

Avera Health is working through leaders of immigrant communities in South Dakota to gain the trust of people without legal immigration status who fear that getting a vaccine would invite the scrutiny of immigration authorities. SCL Health and Avera Health both have supported the work of tribal leaders and the Indian Health Service in inoculating Native Americans, a population that has endured terrible loss in the pandemic.

Focus on the community
Building just and right relationships with the communities that Catholic health care serves requires not only listening, but also acting to address the specific needs of communities of color. In Milwaukee, Ascension opened an obstetrics emergency department in response to the disproportionately high rates of maternal and infant morbidity and mortality, particularly among Black women.

Through its Maternal Health Social Systems Initiative, Ascension also is addressing the many social barriers that at-risk women encounter in attempting to access prenatal and perinatal care.

In other underserved communities, CHA members continue to make capital investments to extend access to care. Mercy invested $2.8 million to construct and equip a 5,500-square-foot clinic in Ferguson, Missouri. It's part of a neighborhood redevelopment that clusters the Boys and Girls Club, Urban League and Salvation Army. Together, the organizations are providing health care, job placement, children's programming, and other services near the site where civil unrest over the police killing in 2014 of teenager Michael Brown propelled the Black Lives Matter movement.

In Lafayette, Louisiana, where many residents are Black and lack adequate access to care, Franciscan Missionaries of Our Lady Health System operates another of the many acute care clinics in the Catholic ministry that treat patients without insurance.

Practice manager Sophia Easterling, left, speaks with a walk-in patient as medical assistant Chasity Parker works in the reception area at Mercy Clinic Primary Care – Ferguson. The clinic was opened by Mercy, which is based in a nearby St. Louis suburb, as part of a commitment to help Ferguson after protesters took to the streets in 2014 to demand racial justice. The protests were prompted by the fatal police shooting of Michael Brown.
Whitney Curtis/© Catholic Health World

In Cleveland, the Sisters of Charity Foundation has held listening sessions among residents in a predominantly Black neighborhood where it plans to develop a health campus anchored by St. Vincent Charity Medical Center.

And Renton, Washington-based Providence St. Joseph Health is investing $50 million over the next five years as part of an effort to leverage and refine population health strategies to reduce health disparities and achieve health equity. The system will use de-identified patient data to zero in and bring resources to bear on specific health disparities in communities it serves.

The We Are Called pledge builds on CHA members' long-standing commitment to social justice by rallying ministry opposition to government policies that perpetuate economic and social inequality, and support for policies that improve the delivery of culturally competent care. During the past year, CHA's advocacy priorities have included reducing racial and ethnic health disparities in maternal care, expanding Medicaid coverage for 2.2 million Americans, increasing access to federal assistance programs for legally present immigrants and providing additional support for access to affordable housing for low-income families.

Kathy Curran, co-leader of the We Are Called initiative and CHA's senior director of public policy, said the commitment to health equity and social justice is core to CHA's advocacy work: "As we advocate for policies that will increase access to health care and improve health outcomes, we need to be vigilant in ensuring that the changes we seek are equitable and just for all, especially those who have historically been marginalized due to preexisting biases and structural racism."

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