Massachusetts Health & Hospital Association

ANCHORING EQUITY: A Conversation with Cape Cod Healthcare’s Kumara Sidhartha, MD, MPH

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MHA’s Anchoring Equity blog series profiles the work of our members as they work to advance health equity, diversity, and inclusion in their organizations and in their communities.  

Kumara Sidhartha, MD, MPH

Chief Health Equity and Wellness Officer,

Cape Cod Healthcare

Can you describe the road to becoming a diversity, health equity, and inclusion leader? What were some key moments that shaped that way you perceive diversity, health equity, and inclusion in the healthcare industry?

My medical school training and early clinician years working in resource-poor healthcare settings in India sensitized me to the connections between poverty and health. While working as an internist at Cape Cod, I completed a Master of Public Health degree at UMass Amherst, which allowed me to visualize population health from the place-based health view and understand the challenges posed by the built environment and the social determinants of health.

In 2016, I got support from Cape Cod Healthcare (CCHC) CEO Michael Lauf to pilot a vegetable prescription program for the food insecure using a randomized controlled trial. As my CEO put it, we were “incubating ideas” to assist the community. During my tenure as medical director of the CCHC Accountable Care Organization we partnered with Community Servings to provide free medically tailored meals for eligible patients in the MassHealth Flexible Services program. Along the way, I joined the Board of Housing Assistance Corporation of Cape Cod and understood the realities of affordable housing on Cape Cod.

I was offered my current position as the Chief Health Equity and Wellness Officer a year ago and started in this role in May 2023. I feel fortunate to still practice Internal Medicine at CCHC’s Medical Affiliates of Cape Cod (MACC) Primary Care in Hyannis, where I interact with patients to get grounded in the realities of the patient world.

The biggest blessing has been the support I have from the organization and the local community all along my journey. I look forward to serving the community in this role.

Of the diversity, equity, health equity, and inclusion initiatives you have led, which one are you proudest of and why?

In July of last year, both Cape Cod Hospital and Falmouth Hospital, along with the primary care practices of CCHC, successfully started routine screening of health-related social needs using a standard social determinants of health screening tool in the Epic electronic health record. I am proud of the efforts of a multi-disciplinary team that came together for several months during the lead-up period to strategize, co-design, train, test, implement, and monitor the progress of this screening. The teamwork, determination, and competence were remarkable to watch as the process and implementation unfolded. 

What is a current diversity, health equity, and inclusion priority within your organization? What are some of the ways you have addressed this priority?

Identifying and addressing health disparities is one of our top DEI priorities.

To that end, having complete and accurate data lays the foundation for measuring health disparities accurately. We are making necessary progress in data completeness for race and ethnicity data. Staff training and public education is underway as we start collecting self-reported sexual orientation and gender identity during our intake and clinical evaluation process, beginning this month. This work is in line with the hospital community’s broader commitment to closing health disparities through a historic 1115 Medicaid Waiver.

As the saying goes, “culture eats strategy for breakfast,” and so we are working on building a DEI culture within our workforce through a culture assessment, staff training, and, in the near future, cross-cultural mentorship programs. A baseline DEI culture survey is being rolled out this month across the organization. The annual mandatory staff training for this year will include DEI topics such as unconscious bias, race, microaggressions, DEI fundamentals, cultural competency and humility, inclusion, and disability status.

With the support of our CEO, the entire senior leadership team at CCHC underwent an executive education session by an external subject matter expert on the topic of unconscious bias. Various efforts are underway to seek feedback from the community, through our health equity committee, on how to address identified health disparities.

What is a message you would send to future diversity, health equity, and inclusion leaders? What are some tools and resources a diversity, health equity, and inclusion leader would need?

It is a long haul and it takes a village. 

Listening is key. Data-driven goals and targets are essential elements. Finding colleagues and mentors from within the organization and/or in the larger DEI space helps run the marathon. Resources are available in the form of counsel/mentoring from within organizations, from external parties in your local community, or from formal entities such as MHA’s Diversity, Health Equity & Inclusion Council meetings, the American Hospital Association’s Institute for Diversity and Health Equity, and the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services’ Health Equity technical assistance team.

Click here to learn more about Cape Cod Healthcare and its programs.