How 4 healthcare leaders are tackling diversity challenges

Emphasizing diversity, equity and inclusion has proven benefits in the healthcare industry, from enhancing care outcomes to improving employee retention. However, DEI leaders still struggle to prove the initiative's importance within the sector, among other challenges. 

Becker's spoke with four health systems' diversity leaders about the hurdles they face.

Note: Responses have been edited for length and clarity. 

 

Cone Health (Greensboro, N.C.)

Niketa Greene serves as director of inclusion and diversity at Cone Health. In 2019, the health system made a commitment to advance DEI, and it now publishes an annual report on the topic. 

Q: What are the most pressing challenges facing diversity, equity and inclusion leaders in the healthcare industry?  

Niketa Greene: This environment has become increasingly polarized, so that conversations around differences can feel emotionally charged. While this isn’t a new phenomenon, it means that we have to be very intentional in the way we approach and lead this work. Our messaging has to be inclusive and create space for all team members to speak their truth while leaning into collaboration across differences. 

Q: How is your department dealing with these challenges? 

NG: 

  • Moved to 24 percent racial diversity for all director and above positions and 50 percent racial diversity among senior-most leadership. By focusing on board member racial representation, we have also reached 43 percent racial diversity among trustees.
  • Hosted a monthly podcast in 2021 to have frank conversations about diversity and inclusion as a system; hosted enterprisewide inclusion circles that created space for respectful small-group dialogue to process emotions around sensitive community issues; launched a diversity and inclusion book club to foster discussions on cultural competency. 
  • 85 percent of [Cone Health] team members completed courses increasing awareness of bias, bias mitigation and inclusive LGBTQIA+ patient care. 
  • Provided leader education on inclusive conversation strategies and systemic racism. 

 

Mercy (St. Louis)

Bridget Marzette-Bender, vice president of diversity, equity, inclusion and belonging at Mercy, was one of the health system's first diversity leaders. Along with her co-workers, she helped found a DEIB advisory board and leads five related councils.

Q: What are the most pressing challenges facing diversity, equity and inclusion leaders in the healthcare industry? 

Bridget Marzette-Bender: Conflicting priorities and competing organizational challenges. Decision-makers may not always understand the experience of minorities, and as a result some DEIB initiatives might not be prioritized at the level they deserve.

Q: How is your department dealing with these challenges?

BMB: 

  • Breaking down projects into measurable, actionable goals. In May 2022, Mercy’s DEIB cabinet identified and defined measurable objectives surrounding talent selection processes such as recruiting, hiring and promoting co-workers. 
  • Benchmarking progress going forward. [The system] will publish an annual report detailing DEIB’s collective efforts, with metrics that are aligned with Mercy’s overall goals for continued growth and service. 
  • Increasing internal and external visibility for Mercy’s DEIB initiatives, beginning with its website and social media channels.

 

Northwell Health (New Hyde Park, N.Y.)

Jennifer Mieres, MD, is the chief diversity and inclusion officer at Northwell Health, which has been ranked the top health system for diversity for three consecutive years by DiversityInc. 

Q: What are the most pressing challenges facing diversity, equity and inclusion leaders in the healthcare industry?  

Dr. Jennifer Mieres: (1) Implementing affordable solutions to advance diversity, equity and inclusion with the goal of achieving health equity; (2) identifying and addressing health disparities through the accurate collection of patient demographic data collection; (3) customizing healthcare delivery to meet communties' needs; (4) focus[ing] on a model where the healthcare workforce and governance structure reflect the communities served; and (5)  building community partnerships. 

Q: How is your department dealing with these challenges? 

JM: 

  • Establish[ed] seven diversity, equity and inclusion-focused committees, councils and steering committees. The seven bodies include leadership representation, with the chief diversity and inclusion officer holding positions on several committees and report[ing] to the executive DEI committee, which is chaired by the CEO and COOI.
  • [Partnered] with Northwell’s Center for Learning and innovation [to] establish the inclusion academy. A curriculum on all areas of cultural competency was developed and available for Northwell team members (unconscious bias, microaggressions, health literacy , effective communication, language access). 
  • Established a standardized health system approach to language access to include video remote interpretation services and vital documents in 21 languages. Working with the quality management department, a dashboard was established to identify healthcare delivery disparities based on preferred language. 
  • Established business employee resource groups to enhance employee engagement, innovation and talent development, and promote an inclusive culture ensuring the delivery of culturally sensitive, quality patient care.

 

UnityPoint Health (West Des Moines, Iowa)

Daniel Joiner is UnityPoint Health's senior vice president and chief diversity officer. He is the first person to be named to the role. Mr. Joiner has served UnityPoint in related positions since 2015 and led the system in designing and implementing a DEI framework. 

Q: What are the most pressing challenges facing diversity, equity and inclusion leaders in the healthcare industry? 

Daniel Joiner: Retaining and recruiting diverse talent and making progress in health equity are major challenges for healthcare. Overall misperceptions around the importance of DEI in the industry have become barriers to prioritizing initiatives that create welcoming, safe environments and improve access and experience.

Q: How is your department dealing with these challenges? 

DJ: 

  • Launched an assessment of the current state of DEI across the enterprise and are defining short- and long-term strategic priorities. 
  • Making changes to ensure access to careers and advancement opportunities are available to everyone. The Pathways Program is helping build stronger talent pipelines and career advancement opportunities across the board but also contains a DEI aspect to ensure we’re removing barriers for underrepresented groups. 
  • System and regional DEI Councils, employee resource groups, leadership training and an ongoing You Belong campaign that raises cultural awareness through profiles, activities and educational tools.
  • [Our] Cultural Resource Guide gives team members easy access to culturally relevant information specific to race, ethnicity and nationality as well as guidance for working with military veterans, LGBTQ+ individuals, people with hearing loss and more. 
  • [The creation of a] Health Equity Steering Committee and Together We Care, [a] free online resource for no-cost or low-cost local community social care services.

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