LMH boards make an impact on inclusiveness, diversity, equity

photo by: LMH Health

LMH Health, 325 Maine St., is pictured in May 2021.

At LMH Health, our purpose is being a partner for lifelong health. We’re committed to making everyone’s health our priority by keeping people healthy, which is much more than treating them only when they’re sick.

Our commitment to health equity, inclusion and diversity isn’t something we do in addition to our work, it’s a fundamental part of who we are.

What is health equity?

We’ve borrowed our definition of health equity from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation.

Health equity means that everyone has a fair and just opportunity to be as healthy as possible. This requires removing obstacles to health such as poverty, discrimination and their consequences, including powerlessness and lack of access to good jobs with fair pay, quality education and housing, safe environments and health care.

Simply put, health equity means increasing opportunities for everyone to live the healthiest life possible, no matter who you are, where you live or how much money you make.

“Health equity is central to our purpose: to be a partner for lifelong health,” said Russ Johnson, LMH Health president and CEO. “We are making investments in advancing health equity and ensuring we are a place where everyone knows they belong. Health equity should be part of the very fabric of our organization and something we intentionally do every day.”

How does LMH Health demonstrate commitment?

The Rev. Verdell Taylor has been a longtime advocate of Lawrence Memorial Hospital. In the early 2000s, as he served as the pastor of St. Luke’s AME, Taylor

also served on the Board of Trustees for eight years. During that time he became well-acquainted with then-CEO Gene Meyer, who approached him with a proposition.

“It started with Mr. Meyer. He came to me in January 2014 and said that we needed to do some things in the area of inclusion, diversity and equity (IDE),” Taylor said. “That’s when a seed was planted.”

After a number of discussions, Taylor came on board part-time at LMH Health in April 2014 and began to put together a team to oversee the hospital’s development of its IDE plan.

“Many organizations use DEI – or diversity, equity and inclusion – for their work in this area,” he said. “I was given free rein to establish and make this program work, and it was important to us to lead with inclusion.”

Some of the first people to seek Taylor out were former employee Don Engel and Erica Hill, who now serves as finance director for the LMH Health Foundation and director for health equity, inclusion and diversity at LMH Health. When looking for people to serve on the IDE committee, Taylor was determined to find out if both Engel and Hill were available.

“I volunteered because of my interest and it became my purpose,” Hill said. “I wanted to use my voice to help others and now understand that using our voices is more than what comes from our mouths – it’s also demonstrating that we care and creating an environment that says, ‘You belong here.’ I’m grateful for the opportunity to do this work.”

And with that, IDE at LMH Health was born. It’s gone through a variety of name changes and has resulted in two distinct teams – the Health Equity Impact Advisors and the Health Equity Advancement Team, also known as HEAT. The work that these teams undertake is vital to the health and well-being of the associates at LMH.

“We must appreciate the differences in one another and identify and respect what others bring to the table. Each one of us has something to bring, but we’re not always invited,” Taylor explained. “We want to make sure that as many people as possible can contribute so that we’re able to move forward.”

One of the ways that associates’ voices are heard is through monthly IDE conversation classes that he hosts, providing the opportunity to come together and have an interactive discussion about a wide variety of topics.

“I love teaching, so I want to delve into a bit of everything and focus on people,” Taylor said. “Whatever box we’re led to check, however you identify – I want to be able to cover those topics. We need to have a greater understanding of people who are different than we are and we have to do that by knowing ourselves.”

Joining the team

Julie Black-Opilo, LMH Health integration architect, joined the Impact Advisors in 2015. It was important to her to have a seat at the table to make LMH a better place for patients and staff who are part of marginalized communities.

“Everyone should be treated with respect and kindness when they walk through our doors. It shouldn’t have to do with their religion, color of their skin or who they love,” Black-Opilo said. “We should also be providing a work environment where they can be their authentic self.”

The mission of the Impact Advisors is to make things better for LMH Health patients and staff, in terms of IDE. The HEAT team focuses on the provision of care and ensuring that LMH serves marginalized communities and groups. Black-Opilo cited the focus on breast cancer screenings and prostate screenings for the Black community as an example.

“The HEAT team has a narrower focus on medical care itself and where we see inequity in care around our unconscious biases and marginalized communities,” she said.

Why do you serve?

Growing up in inner Kansas City wasn’t always easy for staffing/bed coordinator Patty Villanueva. She was called a number of different names and learned to blow it off but as she got older and had a child of her own, Villanueva became an advocate for him.

“I didn’t ever want to hear anything negative about the color of his skin,” she said. “Someone once told him that the color of your skin enters the room before you do. It’s sometimes hard to accept but it’s very true.”

Villanueva was asked to join the impact advisors in 2015. She knew it would provide her with the opportunity to hear what other employees had to say and to voice her feelings on a variety of subjects.

“As the group grew, it made the conversation broader, allowing people to voice personal things and talk about what happens within the walls of the organization,” she said. “What’s brewing with our patients and families? Are we respecting their beliefs and cultures? We’re able to use this group to discuss those types of things.”

Leslie Rials also knows the struggle of wanting to belong and have opportunities. That’s one of the reasons that it has been important for her to be part of the Impact Advisors. It provides an opportunity to share her ideas, thoughts and provide a service that helps others.

“It allows me to give back. When you share the load, you make it lighter for everyone,” she said. “Think back to Martin Luther King Jr., civil rights and women’s activists. If they hadn’t made their contributions, where would America be today? Serving on teams like this gives me an opportunity to contribute and do my part.”

For Rials, working at LMH Health would feel different if the organization wasn’t tackling this work. Employee morale would decline, so it’s important for IDE efforts to be visible so that employees know the work is happening and is more than an afterthought.

Rials offered an analogy: “When you go to a music store, you see racks of albums. Did you know that the gospel section is always the smallest? You always have to ask if they have it. When you have these groups and opportunities you don’t want to make it the gospel section. It’s important to know about the efforts at in your place of business so people don’t have to wonder if you have it.”

Physician leadership

For Dr. Lynley Holman, an OB-GYN with Lawrence OB-GYN Specialists, there’s no way to define the importance of serving as the co-chair of the HEAT team. It’s amplified her awareness and gave her more insight to her privilege as a white woman.

“It’s unacceptable that some populations have access to health care and resources and live longer simply because of the neighborhood they live in or the color of their skin and the opportunities that affords them,” she said.

Holman has long been interested in health equity work and knows that as a healthcare provider, it’s her responsibility to get educated about trauma-informed care and cultural humility.

“I love the work I do with my patients and those who have trauma. I can help them trust the health care system and get care,” she explained. “I want to see systemic changes, community changes and elevate voices. I want people that feel like they haven’t been heard to have a voice and be heard.”

Being able to find time to undertake these efforts can be challenging. Holman is grateful to have support from leadership and her clinic to do the work. If she’s struggling to help a patient, next to her colleagues in the clinic, members of the HEAT team are her most trusted colleagues at LMH Health.

“People in the community know that I’ll listen to them, and I’m seeing people who haven’t been to a health care provider in years,” Holman said. “They’ve often cancelled multiple times before keeping their appointment. I’m helping them rebuild that trust. Without my colleagues and the leadership at LMH being on board, it would be that much harder.”

New kid on the block

Health equity is Tori Gleason’s “why.” She spent 17 years working as a chiropractor and ten years working on a critical access hospital board in western Kansas. Those have allowed her to see access and barrier issues firsthand and understand how those barriers impact health outcomes.

When Taylor asked her to speak at one of the monthly conversation classes that he hosts for staff, Gleason jumped at the chance. She was able to share her lived and learned experience with staff through classes with topics such as advancing health equity for LGBTQ communities and the history of Pride month.

“As I was engaging in those conversations with LMH Health, it made me feel like this was the place for me,” she said. “I knew I wanted to be part of this family before there was even a job.”

When there was an opportunity for Gleason to come on board at LMH Health, she jumped at the chance because she felt welcome and wanted. The conversation classes started it all. That’s why Gleason is now proud to serve both the Impact Advisors and HEAT team.

“This is the first place I’ve been where I feel like I belong. I get up and I’m excited to go to work every morning because the people I work with want me there. That just isn’t the case everywhere,” she said. “LMH Health allows me to be part of an amazing team where I’m able to serve other people. They offered me a seat at the table and it’s my duty to be able to lift up people who don’t have a voice.”

• Autumn Bishop is the marketing manager and content strategist at LMH Health.


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