I’ve been reflecting on how the scientific world came together over the past 15-months to take on a viral pandemic. Despite unprecedented circumstances, the field achieved one of the most incredible feats of modern medicine, and for once, we achieved it together.
The record-speed development of COVID-19 vaccines was achieved in large part because diverse perspectives came together across countries and across disciplines to scale their collective impact.
Consider that two years ago, the estimated timeline for building a new vaccine was up to 10 years. We’re where we are today because an international team from diverse backgrounds rallied together and reenergized previously disregarded mRNA research to create something entirely new. Without the inclusion of these multiple perspectives and voices, a safe and effective COVID-19 vaccine would not have been possible.
This herculean effort showcased what we already knew – that the addition of more voices to the table leads to richer insights, better problem-solving, and more opportunities. Diversity makes for stronger teams and better care delivery. Diverse teams are better at problem-solving and bring perspectives to help understand the unique challenges of typically underrepresented groups, allowing physicians to better address health disparities and conditions that may present differently among different genders, age groups, and backgrounds. Just last year, a 20-year-old medical student in London shed light on the fact that skin diseases present differently on different colored skin – a finding uncovered by a simple observation: “But what will it look like on darker skin?”
In the U.S., minority groups in health care remain significantly underrepresented: Only 0.4 percent of U.S. medical doctors identify as Hispanic or Latino, even though this group makes up 17 percent of the U.S. population, and only 4 percent of U.S. medical doctors identify as African American, even though this group makes up 13 percent of the U.S. population.
These gaps in representation cause significant gaps in care. The medical community must be able to build patient trust and increase communication about health needs from physicians that come from similar backgrounds or at least better understand how to address the needs of patients who are adversely impacted by social determinants of health and may lack confidence in the health care system.
The benefits of diverse clinician teams extend beyond improving patient relationships and even patient treatment. Studies have shown that health care organizations with diverse teams have stronger innovation, communication, and improved financial performance – the premier business case for supporting diverse talent recruitment and promotion at all levels of the organization. Health care organizations must also confront the gaps in representation by benchmarking their progress towards a diverse employee population that represents the members they serve.
It’s only when progress is measured – internally and externally – that organizations can acknowledge and take steps towards rectifying the gaps that exist within their own employee population and their delivery of care. It is not enough for diversity, equity, and inclusion to be a corporate attitude; it must be a priority that is woven into every facet of the business.
We’ve seen the benefits of diversity and collaboration internationally as we fought COVID-19, but now it is up to health care organizations to improve representation in their ranks in order to reach true health equity and improve the quality of care we provide. We are stronger together, and there is no telling what the health care industry could accomplish if U.S. health care companies better reflected the diversity of our population.
Naprisha Taylor is head of diversity, equity, and inclusion (DE&I), Evolent Health, and can be reached on LinkedIn.
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