To improve care, health systems must adopt diversity and inclusion

The current economic crisis caused by COVID-19 has led the nation’s unemployment rate to rise to 14.7%, a figure that likely understates the damage. Even more troubling are the unemployment numbers for women and minorities: 16.2% for the former, 16.7% for blacks, and 18.9% for Latinx (compared to 14.2% for white workers).

There are plenty of reasons to pursue the goals of diversity and inclusion in hospitals and health systems. But the most overlooked are the positive impacts D&I can have on your organization’s performance and health outcomes.

In delivering patient-centered care, sustainable organizations that put people and strategies in place to anticipate future challenges are better positioned to serve communities that are underserved, under stress, or evolving. Diverse health care organizations are better positioned to address the unique needs of patients from various backgrounds and cultures, enhancing their reputations as trusted providers of medical care.

Here are the top five areas where diversity and inclusion can help improve outcomes and performance, with examples from the field of health care providers making a difference in their communities:

1. To curb employee turnover, improve the culture. Diversity and inclusion help retain happy, productive team members, which is necessary for the long-term prospects of any business. Research links workplace discrimination to employee turnover for physicians and nurses.

Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston clearly understands how to keep its staff happy. It ranked No. 1 on a list of best hospitals to work for, according to a survey conducted by the job-search website Indeed.com.

Even though many Massachusetts General employees said their pay wasn’t the highest in town, they gave high marks to the hospital for its commitment to diversity. Inclusive strategies also support aspects of Mass General’s culture that reduce employee turnover, such as opportunities for advancement, work/life balance, and having the best management team.

2. To spark innovation and creativity, start at the top. The best organizations become more effective and efficient when their employees feel safe to innovate and develop creative solutions to internal problems. In a Korn Ferry survey, 95% of executives surveyed agreed that cultural diversity and inclusion contribute to innovation.

Novant Health knows the importance of diversity in leadership. The National Association of Corporate Directors honored the Winston-Salem, N.C.-based health system’s board this fall for practices that “promote greater diversity and inclusion, ultimately fostering long-term value creation.”

“We really believed that diversity and inclusion had to start at the top of our organization, which meant our board of trustees,” said Novant president and CEO Carl Armato. “I’ve been really intentional in partnering with our board chairperson as well as our nominating governance committee to seek board members who reflect the communities we serve.”

3. Good decision-makers watch for blind spots. Diverse teams process facts and information better, according to research cited in the Harvard Business Review, making employees aware of entrenched ways of thinking. In the health care field, research indicates a connection between cultural competence and providing competent, patient-centered care to diverse populations.

Diversity and decision-making were the hot topics at the Colorado Hospital Association’s 2019 Annual Meeting. Sessions included “Discovering New Strengths in Existing Talent to Maximize Performance” and “When Good Isn’t Good Enough: How Unconscious Bias Harms Patients … Despite Our Good Intentions.” Participants discussed recent studies suggesting that teams with greater diversity make better business decisions than less diverse teams.

4. Supplier and community engagement drive value. Supplier Diversity Programs tap into minority-owned, women-owned, veteran-owned, LGBT-owned, service-disabled veteran-owned, historically underutilized business and Small Business Administration (SBA)-defined small businesses. Such programs can go a long way both toward extending a health system’s values into the community and improving its bottom line.

Christus Health put its money where its mouth is. To align with its commitment to diverse leadership and equity of care, the faith-based, not-for-profit health system began a supplier diversity program. Its leaders say that focusing on supplier diversity drives greater value through cost reductions, better contract terms, and improved service.

In establishing a Diversity Supplier Council, which consists of minorities, women, and veterans who are small-business-certified suppliers, Christus Health nearly doubled the number of identified diverse suppliers it does business with. By partnering with these diverse suppliers, Christus Health improved its supply chain department’s net income, an American Hospital Association study suggests.

5. Diversity training lays the groundwork for success. In health care, better-trained staff is better suited to improve patients’ experiences. Making diversity and inclusion a part of an organization’s training programs will reduce unconscious biases that impede patient-centered care. In the Korn Ferry business executive survey, 42% acknowledged unconscious bias concerning diverse backgrounds in their organizations.

Combating unconscious bias and a lack of focus on diversity and inclusion can be daunting. But that hasn’t stopped Northern Light Health, an integrated rural health system serving communities throughout Maine. Education on diversity issues helped Northern Light better serve its patients.

Facing a nursing shortage, Northern Light aggressively recruited nurses through residency programs and extended its search internationally. As a result, the organization’s patient population became less diverse than the health care provider population, raising concerns that the disparity would get in the way of its mission to provide its patients with quality care.

Northern Light partnered with several community resources to educate and heighten awareness of different cultural groups. Grassroots efforts were extended to Maine’s less diverse communities “so that people are more aware of the likeness instead of the differences of our international providers,” explained Paul Bolin, chief human resources officer for Northern Light Health.

Simply put, a focus on diversity and inclusion is not only the right thing to do but the smart thing to do. It provides measurable steps toward making better decisions, delivering better outcomes, and building greater sustainability.

Jay Bhatt is an internal medicine physician and can be reached on Twitter @bhangrajay.

Image credit: Shutterstock.com 

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