This ‘relentless optimist’ grew up with ethic of helping people
Throughout her career in healthcare, Kate Schroder has seen “unacceptable disparities” in health equity at the global level.
But, as she points out, those disparities also exist right in our backyard. In the 20-county Greater Cincinnati region, life expectancy varies dramatically by neighborhood: The gap is up to 26 years. For example, if you live in Indian Hill, your life expectancy is the highest, at 88.2 years. In West Newport, it’s the lowest, at only 62.4 years.
“It’s staggering, and it’s unacceptable,” Schroder said. “That’s more than a quarter of a century. Think about the amount of life that you have lived, that I have lived, in the last 26 years.”
There is also a widening five-year gap in life expectancy between Black and white residents here, she said, and our overall average lifespan is about two years below the national average.
In her new role as president and CEO of Interact for Health, which she took on in January, she wants to help change all that.
“We have an endowment of around $250 million and do about $7 million a year in community grants,” she said. “That is a tremendous resource to make a difference in health and health equity in this region.”
Even so, she notes that the problems are bigger than any one organization can solve – and that’s where her skills come in.
“Really where my skills are is bringing stakeholders and partners together to solve complex problems,” she said. “How do we tackle these multifaceted, complex problems together in a way that minimizes fragmentation and maximizes the impact that we’re able to have? I (hope I) can help be a dot connector and a gap filler.”
Healthcare – and helping – in her genes
Schroder’s close-knit family background helped point her down this path. Growing up in Pleasant Ridge, she was one of four children of a nurse mother and physician father. “I was raised with an ethic of helping people; that is what was valued in my house growing up,” she said.
After graduating with a political science degree from Indiana University, she first pursued a career in health policy and politics. Working in the office of Sen. Evan Bayh was “a dream job at the time,” but she felt like little got done on Capitol Hill. So with an eye toward moving into the private sector, she earned her MBA from The Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania.
Back in D.C., she worked in hospital best practice research and consulting, a job she loved. But while out with friends, she heard The Clinton Health Access Initiative was hiring.
“I passed along my resume on a whim … and I was offered an opportunity to move to Zambia and open their office there,” Schroder said. “I was 29 at the time. It was amazing.”
Her two years there, opening the office, hiring local staff and establishing relationships with the government and partners, were “a life-changing experience.” While there, she attended a funeral every week.
“People would die of so many preventable causes,” she said. “It fills you with just immeasurable gratitude and perspective. … There is such a sense of responsibility to increasingly become aware of the privileges you have.”
When she moved back to D.C., she stayed with the Clinton Health Access Initiative, helping lead and coordinate pediatric treatment programs across Africa and Southeast Asia. During her decade doing that work, she helped reduce drug prices and increase the number of children receiving proper treatment.
In the meantime, she was diagnosed with Hodgkin’s lymphoma. During a Thanksgiving visit to Cincinnati, her oncologist father alerted her that the bumps near her clavicle read as lymphoma. Further testing confirmed the diagnosis.
“You have a ‘before’ and ‘after’ day in your life where one day changes everything,” said Schroder, who was 33 at the time. “Nothing matters but can you survive? Can you get access to the healthcare you need? Will it work on your body? You feel very vulnerable.”
Aggressive chemo made her lose her hair, go into temporary menopause and question whether she’d be able to have children.
“I worked all the way through (treatment) because what motivates and gives me energy is working and serving others and making a difference,” she said.
Her cancer sparked her desire to move back to Cincinnati, a possibility her remote work made feasible.
“You don’t know how much time you have left, so every day you want to be around the people you love,” she said.
The following year, she married John Juech, and they moved to Cincinnati to start their family.
“Not a day goes by that I’m not grateful that I had a chance to be a parent, because I spent a lot of time not knowing if that would be possible,” said Schroder, whose two children just completed the first and third grades at Clifton Area Neighborhood School.
In 2019, she felt a strong need to step down from her job to run for Congress.
“I’m really concerned about the direction of our country,” she said. “We need more people to get involved – people who are low ego, people who are problem solvers, who bring us together instead of pulling us apart.
“We have so much more in common than we realize,” she added. “I wanted to be one voice that was putting myself out there to bring people together and solve some of these real issues.”
After her unsuccessful run, Schroder was eager to work locally. She took a short-term role at The Health Collaborative, helping coordinate the regional COVID-19 vaccine rollout.
“She did some heroic work helping the community through the pandemic,” said Craig Brammer, The Health Collaborative’s CEO. “I was blown away by how quickly Kate jumped in, wrapped her head around the problem we were trying to solve and started solving.
“Interact for Health will give Kate an opportunity to bring her passion and expertise around health equity to our community and help us collectively address some long-standing problems that affect the health status of our fellow citizens,” he said.
“I know that Kate is looking to take Interact for Health to the next level, really looking at what are they doing well and where are there opportunities to expand their work,” added Jill Miller, president and CEO of Bethesda Inc. and bi3.
The timing is right: Schroder joined the organization as it’s preparing its next five-year strategic plan, which should be in place by the end of the year. “I’m really excited about taking a step back and working with our partners to identify the areas where we can have the greatest impact,” she said.
Several areas are “emerging as acute needs that we have an opportunity to address,” she said.
One is youth mental health. Interact for Health has established more than 40 school-based health centers, Schroder said. While they provide mental health care, it’s often available only two days a week and typically focuses on treatment instead of prevention, social-emotional skills and resilience, she said. So she sees an opportunity to build on that work – especially needed considering many providers have thousands of children on their wait lists, and it can take months to get in.
“That’s not acceptable when you have a child who’s contemplating suicide and you’re trying to get help,” she said.
During the last five years, Interact for Health has focused on substance use, particularly on reducing tobacco use and opioid overdoses. That will remain a priority as well, though Schroder hopes to look at substance use more broadly.
More work is needed
More work is certainly needed: Although our region’s overdose rate has declined 14% in the last three years, it’s still more than twice the national average, she said.
“We really see our mission to advance health equity and be the voice of health equity for this region … and in some of these specific areas, like youth mental health and substance use, to really go deep,” she said.
“To tackle a lot of these problems, there’s a lot of interrelatedness,” she added. “So we don’t want to be too narrow in focus.”
For example, the organization wants to help understand and solve underlying health-related social needs, including housing, food insecurity and transportation, that contribute to our region’s lower lifespan and lifespan gap.
“The research shows us that your lifespan and your overall health is only 20 percent driven by clinical healthcare, like the doctor you see and the medicines you take,” she said. “Eighty percent is influenced by the environment you live in – the socioeconomic factors, your healthy behaviors and the physical environment. … So when we’re trying to improve overall health and lifespan and close gaps, you have to think of it from that broader lens, too.”
A self-described “data nerd,” Schroder loves what objective information does to help “turn down the temperature and bring consensus” by creating a common understanding of the problem and taking ego out of the equation.
“These problems are huge and complex, and there’s a role for everybody,” she said.
But her global healthcare experience also reminds her that data is more than just numbers.
“Personally witnessing so much preventable death has an impact on you,” she said. “It makes you realize that behind the numbers we look at, that is a person’s life. That is a mother; that is a father; that is somebody’s sister or brother. … The more we delay, the more lives that are lost.
“It sounds extreme, but I feel such a sense of urgency being in an organization that has resources to bring to bear. We have a moral obligation … to be at the table to help and to be a flexible, responsive partner that listens.”
That last part is critical because those closest to the problem know it best, she said.
“We listen to the members of the community and empower them to help solve these problems rather than coming in with a top-down approach,” she said. “(We want to) allow an environment in which solutions can bubble up. And that dialogue is ongoing.”
Through it all, Schroder remains a “relentless optimist.”
“Even though our community faces a lot of challenges and obstacles, she always has a positive mindset in terms of what can be done,” Miller said.
“The problems are complex, but just because we can’t fix everything doesn’t mean that we can’t do something,” Schroder said. “Any of us could die tomorrow. So just use this day and give it your best. Make a difference with this day.”
For her part, Schroder knows how she wants to make a difference. ν
Interact for Health is offering quarterly webinars to provide updates on their strategic planning process. Join the next one at 10:30 a.m. July 21, 2022.
Read more from our July 2022 issue focusing on Health Equity: Q&A with Jill Miller, president and CEO of Bethesda Inc. and bi3