In June 2020, Norton Healthcare, the largest health system in Louisville, announced five imperatives to address health inequities, four of them being:
- Start a health equity institute
- Improve diversity in its leadership ranks
- Educate its staff to advocate for health policy issues
- Invest more money to address health needs in underserved areas
The remaining item on the list — ensure access to primary care for everyone — was already a priority for Russell F. Cox, Norton’s president and CEO. Cox started talking with his board of trustees about increasing access soon after he was named CEO in 2017.
“And when you talk about access, you pretty soon find yourself talking about equity as well,” he said. “You can look at just about any community across the country and see pockets of haves and have-nots as it relates to access.”
As in many cities, the health disparity gaps from one Louisville neighborhood to the next are shocking. Life expectancy in eastern parts of the city is more than 12 years longer than in the northwestern section.
Norton quickly recognized that two things were essential to earning trust: a permanent presence in the community and partnerships with organizations that had already earned people’s trust.
Norton’s first step in 2017 was a commitment to build a medical clinic embedded in a YMCA being built in West Louisville, which had one primary care provider for every 2,000 residents. By the time the clinic opened in January 2020, the health system also had contributed $5 million to help the Louisville Urban League build a multi-use sports and learning complex in the West End.
That relationship-building proved its worth just weeks later when the pandemic emerged, and West End residents were reluctant to be tested or to seek treatment for the COVID-19 virus.
“We found out very quickly that partnering with trusted partners — our Louisville Urban League and our church communities — was the best way for us to improve access,” Cox said.
After Breonna Taylor’s death, Norton doubled down on its commitment. The Norton Healthcare Institute for Health Equity, created to help eliminate disparities in care, opened in the high-poverty Russell neighborhood. In addition to space for staff and community meeting rooms, the Institute includes rooms for social work and mental health consultations and a telehealth treatment room.
Norton’s 2020 pledge to invest $20 million over five years to address health needs in underserved areas turned out to be an understatement. Within months of the announcement, Norton seized an opportunity to take its commitment to another level.
The health system is partnering with Goodwill Industries of Kentucky to build an “opportunity campus” — a collection of local social service agencies and a full-service hospital. Norton and Goodwill have agreed to spend 27%
of their construction budget with minority-owned businesses, and at least 25% of the construction crew will be from minority backgrounds.
“It’s also important that we staff this hospital with people who look like people in that community, and we’re being very intentional about that,” Cox said.
Running the hospital will be Corenza Townsend, chief administrative officer, who previously was director of provider operations for Norton Medical Group.
“It is an honor and privilege to take on this role that is centered in access to preventative care,” Townsend said. “We will provide healthcare resources that align with what the community wants. This is a unique opportunity to be a part of something from the very beginning that can be a turning point toward improved health outcomes.
“Norton West Louisville Hospital will be purpose-driven and will be a welcoming environment where residents can engage with medical providers throughout their healthcare journey.”
Cox said the work to improve health equity is in line with Norton’s mission.
“If we are going to live up to what we say we are — our mission, vision, values, faith and history — and if we are going to live up to why we went into healthcare, this has to become part of our culture on a daily basis.”