MetroHealth CEO: Why representation matters

When I was selected to lead The MetroHealth System in late 2022, multiple news articles highlighted the fact that I was the first female, the first person of color and the first nurse to be named president and CEO of this nearly 200-year-old institution. In the near year and a half since, I have continued to receive positive notice for breaking this barrier and for making leadership and provider diversity a key focus at Cleveland’s community-centered health system, where a large number of our patients come from minority or underrepresented communities.

However, while I am honored to serve this incredible health system as well as the amazing communities of Northeast Ohio, I remain saddened that the overall diversity of healthcare continues to be a story. It is my distinct hope that someday we will not need to celebrate when a Black female is named a hospital CEO — it will simply be the norm. Unfortunately, that day appears to be far in our future.  

As we celebrate Women’s History Month, directly following Black History Month, it is important to note that healthcare leadership nationally, as with almost every industry, remains decidedly non-diverse. Currently, only 13 percent of healthcare leaders are female, only 6 percent are Black and fewer than 1 percent are Black females. These numbers are glaring on the face of it, but they also exacerbate a much bigger problem in healthcare: minority and underrepresented populations' appallingly negative health outcomes.

For example, heart disease, stroke, cancer, asthma and diabetes are far more likely to kill you if you are a person of color, and the life expectancy for Black men is 10 years lower than the average. In addition, people of color are more than 2 times as likely to die from pregnancy-related causes than white women. Furthermore, survey after survey indicates that members of minority and underrepresented communities often feel unseen and unheard by providers and believe their needs are not included in healthcare decisions that directly affect them.

This is unacceptable in a nation as rich and technologically advanced as the United States, and it is particularly galling given the tremendous strides healthcare has made over the last several decades in preventing and treating disease. 

Of course, leadership diversity will not magically fix the health disparities we face, but it is absolutely clear that representation in healthcare matters. We trust people who look like us, who have the same concerns we have, who know our stories, who know our struggles. Furthermore, research has shown that having diverse and representative care teams measurably improves patient access, health outcomes and the perceptions of the care individuals receive, particularly for people of color. Studies also show that physicians of color are more likely to build their careers in medically underserved communities, improving access for the people who need it the most.

In a concerted effort to improve representation, MetroHealth is going to the source by targeting grade schools, high schools and colleges to diversify the healthcare pipeline. By expanding the pool and providing more opportunity for all, we can truly change the equation and produce future healthcare providers and executives that actually represent the patients they serve.

The flagship of this initiative is Lincoln West Science and Health, the only high school in a hospital in the nation. A partnership with the Cleveland Metropolitan School District, it offers opportunities for young people in our community to learn about healthcare careers, receive externships and internships, engage in peer mentoring, and gain access to professional development and certification programs in a wide variety of medical fields all while still in high school. The program specifically targets inner-city students, many of whom would be the first in their families to pursue post-secondary education. MetroHealth has also provided a donation to the United Negro College Fund to support the awarding of college scholarships to Lincoln West Science and Health graduates.

We are now working with national leaders to highlight the success of this initiative, disseminate best practices and inspire other healthcare systems and high schools to join forces to inaugurate similar programs. Our goal is to transform hospitals across the country into learning laboratories that can provide practical experience to students of all ages while also making healthcare careers more tangible and attainable for individuals who may have never seen someone who looks like them become a nurse or a doctor. 

MetroHealth also works with grade schools, high schools and colleges across our service area to provide preventive care and medical treatment to students, their families and school staff, which has been shown to have a direct positive impact on educational outcomes. In addition, we are partnering with nursing and medical schools in our area to specifically recruit, train and ultimately hire more diverse medical and nursing residents and interns that properly represent all of our communities.

These initiatives are just one component of our broader institutional strategy to eradicate health disparities — not put a dent in them or slow them down, but end them. By making our healthcare providers and leaders more representative of the communities that need our help the most, we can take the first step in meeting this incredibly important and necessary goal.

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