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USF mental health expert Kyaien Conner paves the way for combating racial disparities in health care

Kyaien Conner helped author legislation that will go into effect July 1 designed to improve access to health care by establishing new resources for the Office of MInority Health and Health Equity. SPECIAL TO THE ORALCE/ KYAIEN CONNER

Kyaien Conner, behavioral sciences professor at USF and researcher of racial health disparities within the Black community, has faced the mistreatment of low-income minority women in Florida firsthand, inspiring her to help create legislation to help combat it. 

Gov. Ron DeSantis passed HB 183 on June 17, designed to improve access to health care by creating new initiatives and resources to support the Office of Minority Health and Health Equity. This legislation was written largely by Conner herself and will go into effect July 1.

Conner had just moved to the Tampa Bay area when she experienced the mistreatment. At the time, she was pregnant with her third son and visiting a maternal clinic she’d been referred to by a primary care provider — a visit Conner described as an overall uncomfortable experience.

“I walked in the front doors and it looked like a prison cafeteria,” said Conner. “White walls, really uncomfortable chairs, no pictures anywhere, no magazines, people were rude. It just felt very, very awkward.”

She recounted undergoing a number of uncommunicative and upsetting examinations and promptly decided she would not be scheduling a follow-up appointment. When she informed them of her professional experience in the subject of health care disparity, the clinic manager pulled her aside and explained the establishment was meant for low-income women.

“[The manager] says, ‘I’m so sorry sweetheart, they shouldn’t have sent you here. There are other clinics I could refer you to,’” said Conner. 

“It was very clear to me the provider who referred me to this place looked at me and, based upon the way that I looked, not knowing what [credentials I had], assumed that kind of treatment was OK for me. But when they figured out that I was not this potentially low-income Black girl from whatever side of town, then I deserved better treatment.”

In addition to her profession, Conner said those personal experiences motivates her to work toward achieving health equity in Florida, a goal she is one step closer to as of her latest feat, getting her bill passed. 

“I did not expect 99% of my language to end up in this final bill, but Sen. [Darryl] Rouson and House Rep. Kamia Brown loved it,” said Conner. “I largely wrote this bill with assistance from Sen. Rouson and House Rep. Kamia Brown, and now it’s law.”

Conner’s bill will go into effect July 1 after being signed by Gov. Ron DeSantis on June 17. SPECIAL TO THE ORACLE/KYAIEN CONNER

The opportunity fell into her lap after Rouson reached out to her, having read an article published in the Tampa Bay Times regarding her research. It was his goal to publish new legislation for the State Office of Minority Health and Health Disparities and Health Equity. He said the office could be doing a lot more than it was, and he needed some guidance from Conner as to what necessary changes the office could make. 

“I talked to researchers, academics and legislators in other states that were doing well in this area to find out what we could be doing better, and then went back to my own research around the issues I’ve seen and what I thought would make a meaningful impact,” said Conner. 

“Then, I wrote out a large plan that I submitted to the senator and to House Rep. Kamia Brown, and they loved it.”

The bill’s aim is to provide more financial infrastructure to the Florida State Office of Minority Health and Health Disparities and Health Equity to ensure it will develop programs and demonstration projects that can be broadly disseminated across Florida focused on testing interventions to reduce disparities, according to Conner.

“The issue of health disparities is a critical problem that unfortunately in our country is continuing to grow in its magnitude. For many health disparities and various disease categories, these disparities and outcomes are getting worse, not better, particularly for African Americans,” she said. 

“So, as a researcher, professor and scholar, I have focused my career on trying to better understand why these disparities exist, why they’re growing and what we can do about them.”

Conner is also involved in a number of other projects pertaining to the study of racial health disparities in Florida. She received a $2.5 million grant April 1 from the Patient Centered Outcomes Research Institute to fund USF research on Care Transitions Intervention (CTI), a national program which provides patients discharged from medical care institutions with the tools and support to ensure their health and self-management needs are met.

The study will examine the impact of a CTI program enhanced with peer and community support, according to Conner. 

She will be partnering with Tampa General Hospital, Lakeland Regional and AdventHealth Kissimmee to monitor 402 African American and Latino patients over a period of six months, examining the effects of patients discharged without additional assistance, patients who will participate in the CTI program and those who will participate in the CTI program as well as receive additional peer support.

“Ultimately, the question is, if we can add culturally meaningful components to already evidence-based interventions, can they be even more helpful for communities of color, and can they work to reduce health disparities,” said Conner.

She also received a few grants that were funded through USF’s initiative on understanding anti-Black racism. One of them was developing a two-part series titled, “This Is My Brave: Stories from the Black Community” which is a partnership with This Is My Brave Incorporated, a national organization that focuses on stigma reduction, according to Kristin Kosyluk, assistant professor in the department of mental health law and policy and Conner’s colleague.

In addition to the recent bill that she wrote with Sen. Rouson, Dr. Conner also led a special edition of the national anti-stigma performance, ‘This Is My Brave,’ targeting stigma surrounding behavioral health in the Black community,” said Kosyluk. 

“This show has inspired other minoritized communities to challenge stigma using this evidence-based programming.” 

The show reached out to African Americans across the country who struggled with mental illness or substance use disorder, who had been in treatment and experienced race-based trauma. Conner helped to produce both parts of the series as well as conduct the research on the impact it would have. 

The ultimate goal of the series was to open up conversations about mental health in communities of color in order to reduce stigma, with participants sharing their stories and urging others to seek help if needed.

“We found through research that contact or exposure to someone else who is going through similar situations [as you will] say things such as ‘This is my story’ [or] ‘I’ve been through this,’” said Conner. “You don’t have to feel ashamed because you have a mental health disorder and go get help, it makes a difference.”

Conner’s other grants include the funding of a program that utilizes critical race theory and integrates it into the development of middle school curriculum, and one with the Florida Department of Health that examines the impact of African drumming on mood symptoms and caregiver burden among older African Americans.

Along with Conner‘s work in minority health and health disparities, she has earned many awards and honors at USF. She was named Outstanding Teacher of the Year in 2016 and Outstanding Black Faculty Member of the Year for 2020-21 by the Black Faculty and Staff Association at USF.

Conner’s father, Marvin O’Quinn, said he’s impressed with her extensive health research and many accolades as well as the passion she holds for her work.

“I think she is doing really well. Her research portfolio is large and growing. She loves her work, she loves her colleagues and she loves USF,” said O’Quinn. “I am very proud of her. I think her work will make a difference in the lives of many people.”

Conner’s favorite part about her job is participating in many areas that contribute to her passion and end goal, such as mentoring students alongside teaching and working. 

“The thing I love the most about academia is the ability to do a lot of different things that I love and have them all count and be meaningful to my position where I get to teach and work with students that I love,” said Conner. “What’s the point of doing all this research if I’m not able to share it with the people who are going to be out there actually working with people and doing that work.”