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Addressing Racial Equity in the C-Suite

December 8, 2020
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The events of the past year have demanded actionable conversations on diversity, equity, and inclusion, particularly in healthcare, where COVID-19 has disproportionately impacted communities of color. The publication Modern Healthcare recently held a virtual town hall (“A Conversation: How Racial Equity in Healthcare Starts in the C-Suite and Boardroom”) to bring together healthcare leaders to discuss how they can best address racial inequity from a leadership perspective. Steven Ross Johnson and Aurora Aguilar, a reporter and an editor at Modern Healthcare, moderated the discussion. They were joined by a diverse group of eight healthcare leaders from across the country.

Strategies to Diversify

When asked what strategies could help an organization better diversify, Joanne Conroy, MD, president and CEO at Dartmouth-Hitchcock and Dartmouth-Hitchcock Health, said blinding resumes for leadership positions can help address implicit bias. Blinding resumes is a practice in which candidates’ personal details (i.e., gender, age, and ethnicity) are not included in the evaluation process. “When you get a stack of a hundred resumes, it’s pretty difficult to go through those quickly without letting some unconscious gut feeling decide who gets into the video interview pile versus who doesn’t. So now, we blind all resumes for senior leadership positions,” said Aguilar. “The last time we did that—hiring for two of our really important positions—we got a female candidate and a diversity candidate and were incredibly pleased by the outcome.”

TriHealth recently launched a program that aims to recruit more diverse job candidates. “We launched—just this year—an emerging leader program that targets and develops up-and-coming minority candidates within our system to really be able to promote from within,” said Mark Clement, president and CEO of TriHealth. "This is, for us, probably one of the best sources for leadership talent.”

Getting diverse candidates in the door is one strategy, but keeping them is another. “It is not enough to successfully hire a diverse candidate,” said Ceci Connolly, president and CEO of Alliance of Community Health Plans. “We need to invest in their success over the long term.” At Dartmouth-Hitchcock, Dr. Conroy said they started a diversity equity, inclusion, and belonging task force to create a safe environment in which leadership can openly learn from current employees’ experiences.

Creating pipelines with community partnerships is an important strategy to create diversity and ensure that leadership and healthcare providers represent the patients they serve. Carladenise Edwards, senior vice president and chief strategy officer at Henry Ford Health System, said her organization is intentional about connecting with high school programs because diversity in leadership demonstrate to young people that they too can reach that level of success. Henry Ford Health System currently partners with local high schools and does rotations with about 70 students throughout the hospital system to show them how healthcare delivery works. “We also have a relationship with our local historically Black college,” said Edwards. “There are more than 100 of such colleges across the country. Find one that’s close to you in your region and reach out to those students.”

Leadership Accountability

For the first time in its history, TriHealth has established a leadership diversity goal for which senior leaders are now accountable that is directly tied to its incentive plan. While it is crucial that an organization’s leaders be held accountable for the organization’s equity initiatives, all team members must be engaged in those efforts to help leaders understand the consequences of prejudice. “We found it more important to engage the front lines than some of the senior leadership because front-line workers better understand what’s happening in the real world,” said Suresh Gunasekaran, MBA, CEO of the University of Iowa Hospitals and Clinics and associate vice president of the University of Iowa Health Care. “We found that our staff members of color and of different sexual orientation were subject to a lot more harassment and abuse from our patients than we were fully aware of.”

Starting the conversation about the importance of a diverse workforce and building trust is the first step toward diversifying an organization’s leadership. “I had the opportunity to build a relationship with the CEO at Baptist Health and that trust allowed me to sit down and show our data—the demographic representation of our leadership hasn’t changed in 10 years. That made him want to do something about it,” said Nicole Thomas, president at Baptist Medical Center South. “That is how that conversation started for us. It was based on the idea that we have to change because our data does not match our hearts.”

Thomas said that everyone should receive unconscious bias and cultural competency training: “That helps us find the common ground, making sure that we continue to tell those stories to colleagues. It’s important that we understand what we’re all carrying with us.”

“For us, I think the answer to how do you have these conversations is for you to just have them,” said Mark Clement of TriHealth. “We now conduct virtual town meetings on a quarterly basis on diversity, our commitment to social justice, and intolerance of racism of any kind.”

A recording of the virtual town hall is available online at Modern Healthcare for a registration fee.

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