Finding Our Champions
Kari Kuka & Denver Health are Transforming Healthcare for the LGBTQ Community
Note: This blog post is part of a series featuring community members that will be honored at the Transformation event on September 30, which is a fun and inspiring brunch that celebrates the power to transform lives in the LGBTQ community. Get Tickets >
Like many transformative leaders, Kari Kuka is adept at celebrating and honoring the contributions of the people around her. When we head inside Denver Health’s administrative offices, the first thing she does is introduce me to her team members at the LGBT Center of Excellence, which includes an administrator and medical director, as well as care navigators and health educator trainers.
Throughout our conversation, she’s quick to credit others, the “champions who are excited to support LGBT patients” at every level of the organization. She points out how many people – from cooks in the cafeteria to post-operative surgical teams – now walk around campus sporting rainbow lanyards.
It’s evident that all of these champions are proud of what they are building with the Denver Health LGBT Center of Excellence. And, why shouldn’t they be? Ms. Kuka and her team have truly transformed healthcare options for the LGBTQ community in Colorado. It’s a success that is now garnering Denver Health national recognition – and lots of questions from other providers looking to replicate their success.
“We work at an organization with a mission of level one care for all people, and the people that work here truly believe in that mission. We take care of patients with no insurance, homeless patients, refugee patients. Every patient should get good quality care.”
“We have been contacted from all over the country. They want to know what we are doing with our electronic medical record. They want to know why we didn’t pick one clinic,” said Ms. Kuka, referring to providers who have not yet integrated questions about sexual orientation and gender identity into their medical forms or who tend to funnel LGBTQ patients into one specialized clinic.
Ms. Kuka is adamant that LGBTQ patients have the same access to affirming care as any other patient who chooses Denver Health. “I believe in the decentralized model. It’s not equitable for someone who lives in Montbello with limited transportation to have to go to the ‘gay’ or ‘trans’ clinic when there’s already a clinic in their neighborhood. So, I’m sticking to my core values of public health, access for all, in an equitable manner. And, those are unheard of.”
Denver Health created new pamphlets and brochures, designed to be inclusive and welcoming of LGBT patients.
The seeds of the LGBT Center of Excellence were planted when the hospital received a grant from the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment to improve outreach to the LGBTQ community. Ms. Kuka was tasked with developing a plan for hospital administrators to consider in spending the funds.
A member of the LGBTQ community herself, Ms. Kuka was passionate about the project and saw an opportunity to “think big,” conducting a needs assessment and putting together a business plan that would become the LGBT Center of Excellence. The plan was ambitious, and would require significant effort and buy-in from staff at all levels to implement.
Ms. Kuka said that, ultimately, it wasn’t a hard sell. “We work at an organization with a mission of level one care for all people, and the people that work here truly believe in that mission. We take care of patients with no insurance, homeless patients, refugee patients. Every patient should get good quality care.”
The administrative offices for the LGBT Center of Excellence at Denver Health show their pride.
But, that doesn’t mean it was an easy road to travel. There is a simple reason why Denver Health is the only healthcare organization in the country that has integrated care for LGBTQ patients. It turns out, it’s a very difficult endeavor to do well.
“If we have one clinic, that’s like five people I have to train,” Ms. Kuka explains. “If you have an organization of 7,000 people with a decentralized model, you have to train 7,000 people – with turnover.” But, she believes this approach can make all the difference in a patient’s journey. “I come in as a patient, my primary care doctor is a champion – but what if I need an x-ray? What if I need to get an MRI? What if I need to go have surgery? Am I going to be treated well? And, at our organization, the answer is yes because we have trained everyone in our system.”
By prioritizing integrated and affirming care in this manner, Denver Health is blazing a new trail for LGBTQ patients, already seeing an impact in the community.
“We really want to be known as the best place to come if you identify as LGBTQ. Word on the street is that it’s good to come here. We’ve had more new patients last month than we’ve ever had. We can’t keep up with demand,” said Ms. Kuka.
“I believe in the decentralized model. It’s not equitable for someone who lives in Montbello with limited transportation to have to go to the ‘gay’ or ‘trans’ clinic when there’s already a clinic in their neighborhood. So, I’m sticking to my core values of public health, access for all, in an equitable manner. And, those are unheard of.”
All of which has Denver Health planning for more growth, and Ms. Kuka’s team looking ahead. “I think the trans community had the most lack of care, so we started there with training people up. But, we’re very committed to making sure that any person who walks through the door can get access to the providers and get the care they want and need.”
This means implementing new trainings to address every population within the LGBTQ community. Denver Health will also continue to add new services for the community, looking to improve their ability to help with insemination for same-sex couples and launching new procedures for the trans community, such as facial-feminization surgeries, tracheal shaves, and voice therapy.
Mostly, she’s excited to have found all of her champions at Denver Health.
“It’s not about me. I’m the driver of the bus, but there’s so many people on the bus charging away. I couldn’t have done this – we couldn’t have done this – without the amazing work and commitment and drive of everyone involved. I’m sure proud of Denver Health. Someone just has to have an idea. A lot of people said yes.”