Well-intentioned healthcare boards fall short on diversity efforts: 2 experts weigh in

Despite enthusiasm and good intentions, healthcare boards are making slow progress on diversity goals, according to a new report from WittKieffer and The Healthcare Management Academy published Jan. 11. Becker's spoke with two managers involved in the report to break down why progress is so slow and how boards can accelerate the process. 

For this report, the research team engaged executives from 25 leading health systems through quantitative surveys and qualitative interviews. Collectively, the people interviewed represented more than 400 hospitals with an average total operating revenue of $6 billion. The report reveals that despite clear intention to modernize boards, health systems are falling short. 

Boards made seen some progress in terms of racial diversity, with the number of Black members increasing by 7 percent since 2019. However, 79 percent of board members are white. The data paints a similar story for gender, with only 11 percent of board chairs identifying as women. Sixty-six percent of board members are also older than 60, while more than one-third of the U.S workforce is composed of millennials (those born between 1981 and 1996).

Paul Bohne, managing partner and practice leader in healthcare at recruitment search firm WittKieffer, and Victoria Stelfox, manager in research and advisory at The Health Management Academy spoke to Becker's about the report's findings. 

"When we think about the relative lack of board diversity in healthcare, it's certainly not for lack of priority," Ms. Stelfox said. She added that leading health systems are committed to diversifying their boards not only to better serve their communities but for strategic value. 

Legacy practices and outdated board policies are slowing the progress, however.

"Among the key takeaways from the work were the boards themselves identifying that in many cases, their own bylaw structures and aspects of board structure that includes age limit, term limits, can then themselves be impediments to advancing diversity goals," Mr. Bohne said. 

These practices can take time to change. 

"What board chairs told us is that most of them are somewhere in the process of re-evaluating their governance model," Ms. Stelfox said. "They understand that making some of these changes may require updating their bylaws, which can be a lengthy and cumbersome process in its own right."

Although building more diverse boards will require time and effort, Ms. Stelfox and Mr. Bohne said they are encouraged that diversity is a significant priority for boards. In the report, they outline steps and recommendations that could boost boards' efforts. 

"While it will take time, it will take less time if some of these clear action steps are taken," Mr. Bohne said. "Goals can be accelerated by adopting some of these specific steps with modernizing their form of governance."

"I do think we will see solid momentum here in the next couple of years," Ms. Stelfox said.

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