Katrina Dorse,  Community Outreach and Marketing Intern, Le Bonheur Children’s Hospital and Founder and Executive Director, Big Heart Fund

In our mission to invest in the next generation of health equity leaders, this year we awarded 25 scholarships to students and working professionals so that they may attend the 2019 National Summit on the Social Determinants of Health in San Diego, Calif. Oct. 20-22. Our Scholarship Spotlight Series highlights the student leaders in the movement to build health equity who will be attending the summit. 

Years of medical practice on how best to treat an illness cannot compensate for a patient’s personal experience, as often times individuals know themselves and the care they need best. This is the reality of addressing social determinants of health, a unique practice requiring the ability to prioritize cultural competency, active listening and compassion among health providers and the community at large, in order to deliver the most effective care.

Katrina Dorse is one of the many Americans who has experienced first-hand the challenges of navigating a healthcare system with providers who do not understand her struggle. She believes healthcare providers must consider an individual’s holistic life experiences, combined with their current reality as an approach to make decisions that affect entire communities.

Dorse grew up in Memphis, Tenn. in a middle-class household. She attended the University of Tennessee as well as Catholic University before giving birth to her son, who was born with a chronic health condition in 2016. She has always been a social justice advocate and even spent some time in DC to advocate for expansion on SNAP benefits. “Ironically enough, two years later I ended up needing those very same benefits and currently do live on those benefits today,” she said. An educated and well-traveled person, Dorse has lived at or below the poverty line as a single parent while taking care of her sick child. “There was nothing that prepared me for navigating the healthcare system alone,” she said. She had a difficult time obtaining paperwork for Social Security benefits for her son, and once she received them, she found the process frustrating and the paperwork difficult to understand. “When we are creating programs to address vital social needs it is not enough to simply have the resources available, we must ask ourselves if our resources are also accessible for those we serve.” If the help line isn’t available after 4:30pm to answer questions, an everyday patient with an hourly, demanding job may not be able to access the resources they need even if funding is available because the process is not accessible. For Katrina, simply having an expert available to let her know what her options were would have been a huge support in improving accessibility.

Although she had the opportunity to be with her son while he was receiving care, she once overheard hospital staff contemplating why other parents weren’t always available for their children, and Dorse was deeply disturbed by the hospital staff’s comments. “I remember thinking that those parents are working and might not have the luxury of a job that allows them to take off work to be with a sick child. Bills don’t stop because your child is sick. Sometimes we criticize families for making decisions that we wouldn’t make without realizing that they don’t have the same choices we do. We have the privilege that allows us to avoid those tough decisions. That’s what I wish providers understood when working with marginalized communities,” she said.

Dorse believes providers should not only offer services but offer support as well, by first asking, “What are the needs in your community? Not, if we put this health clinic in your neighborhood, will you come? If we want people to be healthier and be engaged in their health, that’s an investment in the community we have to be willing to make.” Health leaders should acknowledge what patients are prioritizing, and what they are giving up in order to seek out the medical attention that will change their lives. Medical care can then be delivered accordingly.

Dorse is founder and executive director of the Big Heart Fund and has worked in a variety of social service organizations in drug rehabilitation, rural health, and Head Start, all experiences that led to her passion in social work. She will graduate in May 2020 with a Master’s degree in Social Work with concentration in Nonprofit Administration from the University of Memphis.

Dorse is passionate about how to make healthcare available and comfortable for people with chronic illness. She wants to work in healthcare administration and use her past experience in spaces where others might not expect her to be, to let people know what other families like hers need. Moving forward with how we deliver care, she believes providers and the community at large should prioritize prevention. “A lot of what we do is reactionary, but I want to get to a place where we are preventing issues before they arise.”