'What you do is listen first': Dr. Joyce Sackey on stepping into Stanford Medicine's inaugural chief diversity and inclusion officer role

Health equity has been on the forefront of Joyce Sackey's, MD, mind since a very young age. Growing up in Ghana, she observed an uneven distribution of and access to healthcare, which stimulated both her drive to help others and an interest in medicine.

Stanford (Calif.) Medicine named Dr. Sackey its inaugural chief diversity and inclusion officer Aug. 10. Prior to her appointment, Dr. Sackey spent the last 14 years at Medford, Mass.-based Tufts University, where she held a variety of leadership roles, most recently serving as the associate provost and chief diversity officer for the health sciences schools. Her first day at Stanford was Sept. 1. 

A week into the role, she sat down with Becker's to speak about her roots, priorities and hopes for health equity in the future.

Question: What piqued your interest in healthcare, or health equity specifically?

Dr. Sackey: My interest in healthcare and health equity actually coincided. I became interested in pursuing a career in healthcare because I grew up in an area where access to healthcare was unevenly distributed. That stimulated my initial interest and led me to ask the question, "What does one need to do to become a physician and help provide care for those folks who didn't have access to care?" That interest was sparked at a very early age. I would say inherently my initial interest was a motivation to promote health equity. Then of course, I was fortunate enough to have been good at science and have an interest in pursuing it. It seemed like it'd be a perfect match to combine my love for science with my drive to help people. 

Q: What are your goals for your first six months in the position?

JS: I think that in general, any new leadership position requires a period of listening. I prefer to call it [the] listening and learning phase, and especially for a position as complex as this one which is also an inaugural position. So I will spend a good chunk of the first six months really doing what I will call my listening and learning tour. I am planning on meeting with key stakeholders, which will include faculty, staff, trainees, students and, more importantly, the folks who have been at the forefront of doing this work, so that I can better understand what our priorities ought to be. And of course, there'll be a period of developing the strategy to tackle the high priority items.

Q: How would you most like to see health equity advance nationwide in the next five years? 

JS: First of all, just to give you some background, the U.S. spends more dollars per capita than any other developed nation on the planet with regards to healthcare, and yet, healthcare outcomes, so how healthy the population is, is not number one. You would think that if money buys health and we're spending more money than any other developed country that we should have the best health outcomes. So what I would love to see is to have our healthcare outcomes as a nation not only improve overall — right now we rank in the 30s — but also specifically improve for those communities that are most vulnerable, most underserved.

Q: What's the first word that comes to mind when you think about Stanford's health equity efforts?

JS: I would say "commitment." It's clear there is a commitment, starting from the leadership level all the way to the front lines. Many people in the Stanford Medicine community are committed to working towards achieving health equity. That's key — you need a strong commitment first and foremost.

Q: What's the biggest roadblock to achieving greater health equity that the healthcare industry still needs to overcome?

JS: The U.S. healthcare system is a really complex industry, and it's also known for not scaling up best practices. So for instance, there are health systems that have figured out how to more effectively take care of the patient population with diabetes and have great health outcomes, but the next healthcare system [doesn't implement] the same practices. So when we have known best practices, guidelines that are published and available publicly, we know that the adoption of those best practices is spotty, at best. So I think the challenges are, everybody's sort of trying to reinvent the wheels, so to speak. And then in instances where there's actually [an] instruction manual for how to invent a wheel, we don't necessarily have the update that we ought to have so that health outcomes can be more uniform and realized across the country. So I think those are the biggest threats. We have the brightest minds in this healthcare system, no question, and of course Stanford Medicine is really on top of that. And so I'm very excited about this position. And I'm excited about the clip that I'm seeing here at Stanford Medicine, because I believe that once we have tested all kinds of interventions and models of care, that will then show proof that we can improve outcomes for everyone, regardless of their background, race, ethnicity and so on. The world will pay attention to something that Stanford is doing, and my hope is that we will then encourage the rest of the country to sort of really emulate and adopt those best practices.

Q: What is the best leadership advice you have ever received?

JS: Well, actually, I have adopted the best advice I received. … I have a wonderful mentor of mine who advised me and said, "As an incoming leader you will be asked to answer the question, 'What are you going to tackle first?' What you do is listen first." If you do the very first idea that comes your way, you may miss the opportunity to address a more pressing and important need. Even if you tackle the most important issue first, you may not have the benefit of all the perspectives on the table if you don't first take the time to listen and learn. In order words, what would be the first three things I would do as a leader? I would say, "Listen, Listen. Listen. And learn. And then move forward. Learn and then act — boldly."

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