By Sharyn T. Williams, VP of Marketing, Communications, Programs, and Events, Worcester Regional Chamber of Commerce
In this interview with the founder and CEO of Century Homecare, Milka Njoroge, she talks about healthcare during the pandemic and racial equity. As an immigrant from Kenya, a developing country with limited opportunity, the adjustment to a fast-paced culture with such abundance was an adjustment that took time and offered many contradictions.
Where did you grow up and how did you end up in Worcester?
I grew up in Kenya and moved to the states in 2001 to be with my now husband, also from Kenya who had taken a job in Boston. I went to MCPHS University, Worcester Campus, earning a PharmD degree and took a job at UMass where I worked for 8 years.
How does the fact that you are an immigrant influence your perspective on healthcare?
Growing up, I would never have imagined the healthcare resources available in the US. Despite the many resources, there are many populations that do not have the same access to health services. My focus is to address barriers to health care access by partnering with families and healthcare providers to build a patient-focused community around each patient. Increased access to care improves quality of life and is overall cost effective for the healthcare system.
You hold a PharmD and had a successful career in pharmacology with a specialty in cardiac care. What made you decide to start Century Homecare?
While I worked in the in-patient setting, we would see the same patients coming to the hospital over and over again. Most of the patients had chronic conditions that were not well managed and at times presented with severe complications. Many of the patients were from underserved populations – mainly low-income population, minorities, immigrants, marginalized communities, etc. At the time, we did some research that showed that most agencies focused on patients who needed short term post-acute care. We therefore saw an opportunity to assist patients manage their chronic illnesses by providing holistic, culturally competent care.
What is different about the services that Century Homecare provides? In other words, how do you differentiate your services in the crowded industry of caring for patients at home?
We have a significant focus on a holistic approach to supporting our patients. A high percentage of the patients we service have other social economic factors that impact their health- like access to food, transportation for their medical appointments, have mental health illnesses that affect their decision making, etc. Our clinicians not only focus on the medical needs, but also assess and coordinate with other community resources to address all these other needs.
Your home health services company has their home office in Worcester. Why did you select the city and how did you select your other two locations in Springfield and Brockton?
I had gone to school, lived and worked in Worcester. We saw the opportunity in Worcester to provide home health care to an underserved population. In addition, Worcester has the 2nd highest concentration of hospitals and health care facilities in the state, has lower cost of living making it economical to operate a business. The City was also very helpful in assisting us get a facility. We selected the other 2 locations based on the demographics of patient we wanted to serve.
How many professionals work for the organization and how would you describe your staff’s background, credentials, areas of expertise and specialties?
We have about 250 staff at our 3 locations. Our team is diverse and includes nurses, therapists (Speech, Occupational, Physical), social workers and home health aides. We believe in investing in our staff when able and have in the past provided opportunities for our staff to advance their education. Through a partnership with Quinsigamond Community College, we provided scholarships for home health aides to become LPNs resulting in more opportunities and higher income. I believe education is key to many advancement opportunities and will continue to look for ways to invest in our staff.
The past several months has seen a health care crisis and the culmination of centuries of racism and oppression in the black community. How has this affected you personally? What actions, if any, has Century Homecare taken as a result?
Our frontline staff faced the pandemic with courage, focusing on patient care even when that put their safety at risk. I recently saw an article in Forbes that said that home health agencies have probably not gotten the credit they deserve, and I agree. Even with the lockdown, we have found ways to ensure that patients receive the care they need. Between caring for their own families, worrying about their own safety, limited PPE availability, and many other obstacles, our staff has performed with utmost professionalism and with care. Overall, we have had very few of our staff or patients develop COVID-19. A lot of credit goes to our staff’s focus on daily symptom assessment and patient education. Taking the time to educate ourselves and our patients about safe practices amid the pandemic and following those best practices, in addition to providing our staff with PPEs has been critical.
We did not lose staff during the pandemic and am happy about that. Century provided emergency paid sick leave for staff members affected by COVID-19. This helped support our staff so that they did not have to choose between their health and providing for their families.
How has the COVID-19 pandemic changed the industry and what has Century Homecare done to mitigate the impact?
The pandemic has highlighted the critical role that home care plays in healthcare. At Century, we are rethinking how we work, focusing on efforts to better serve our patients and support our staff. In the short-term, our focus will be on safety by ensuring that we have PPEs as fall approaches; being innovative and streamlining how we deliver care and continuing to focus on staff wellness, engagement & appreciation.
As a woman of color, how has racism affected you, and in particular, racial justice and the recent black lives matter movement?
I never had trouble sleeping until the pandemic and the racial injustice demonstrated by the horrible events of May 25th. As a mother of a daughter and two sons, that video may have impacted me more than I had been aware. As a family, we’ve had some difficult conversations with the kids about race and growing up in America. My 11-year old son whose best friend is white could not understand why someone would be treated differently because of their skin color. Through his eyes, I can see the innocence of a child but as a mother, I worry about his safety. The ongoing racial justice movement, however, gives me hope that people are ready for change.
As a CEO, it was important that our staff know our stand. We started having genuine conversations with our staff in June. You don’t know what you don’t know…so our approach is to listen and ask questions. As an organization we reviewed how we are structured and how we do business. We discussed our responsibility in promoting social justice. As individuals, it is having practices, attitudes and actions that promote equal opportunity and treatment for all people. As an organization, it is ensuring that no biases are built into our policies and procedures. It is also advancing practices, attitudes and actions that promote equal opportunities and treatment for all people. In addition, it is partnering and supporting other organizations whose missions align with promoting racial justice.
I understand that Century Homecare gives back to the community. What organizations do you support and in what ways?
We support organizations whose mission align with ours- we believe in promoting education and access to healthcare. Some of the organizations we support include African Community Education (ACE), Summer programs for kids in Worcester, Worcester Senior Centers, etc.