Healthcare DEI leaders take temperature after June rulings

An article published last week in Becker’s Hospital Review, a leading trade journal for the healthcare industries, describes steep disinterest in C-level diversity, equity and inclusion or DEI positions after a pair of June rulings by U.S. Supreme Court ruling on affirmative action, which unravels decades of employment and education protections for women, minorities and other at-risk groups.

What was a fast-growing area for C-suite roles in 2022, has spiraled into a mess for experts in the field, as fewer professionals apply for those roles, open positions are phased out, or senior-level DEI positions are moved under Chief People Officers or Chief Administration Officers. In a medical setting, such moves could prove dangerous, which has many leaders in the field wisely taking a measured approach.

“In the wake of the new ruling with affirmative action, (health care organizations are) even changing some of the titling in some states,” says Dr. Yolanda Wimberly, M.D., and senior vice president and chief health equity officer at Atlanta-based Grady Health System.

She told the Hospital Review that she has colleagues from “across the country who were doing this work, who now are no longer doing it or have had to reinvent themselves, had to retitle themselves, and in some instances, just had to shut to down shop because of everything else on the outside that pressured them to not be able to still do this valuable work,” Dr. Wimberly says.

Fortunately, even with the ruling, Grady Health System has expanded its health equity initiatives, studying patient populations, identifying data inequities and addressing and engaging with the people and the issues, she says.

“When you start to look at some of the other roles that talk about diversity, equity and inclusion, in my opinion,” Dr. Wimberly continues, “that’s where we start to see – depending on the leadership of the institution, what their beliefs, values, goals are, in addition to the political climate of the community, as well as the state that they’re in – that may have had some negative impact on what that looks like.”

Dr. Lois Greene, DHA, BSN, RN, and the senior vice president of wellness, diversity, equity and inclusion at Newark, N.J.-based University Hospital, concurs. “I feel like the emergency department of any town is sort of where you see the microcosm of what goes on in the town,” she says. “So that’s where I really, really got to learn about urban communities.”

“(A hospital) is not just a provider in the community, we are a community member, right? As a hospital, there’s lots of things that we see. And if we don’t share our information, then the community ills can continue to happen,” she says.

As an example, if an emergency department sees an inordinate number of falls perhaps to due snow or icy conditions, it has a responsibility to share information about fall prevention. But perhaps the data shows that a disproportionate number of falls derive from a recent immigrant population who are not accustomed to snow, perhaps patients from Haiti or El Salvador. Viewed through a DEI lens, the advisory could be published in French and Spanish as well as in English. Equity initiatives remove the second-guessing.

She says that many health systems do see the value in DEI initiatives since they touch every aspect of an organization, from turnover rates to care quality. But both leaders concede DEI roles, much like healthcare itself, is at an inflection point.

Healthcare leaders need to ensure that DEI aligns with the strategic mission of their respective organization, show how it can provide financial benefit, and illustrate how it can improve other areas with the health system, such as clinical work.

“I think for (DEI officers) and the health equity offices, it’s important for us to demonstrate why it’s important for us to be in that role, and why it’s important for the hospital system or the institution to have a whole office that only thinks about this all day long on a daily basis,” says Dr. Wimberly. “Health equity is not an add-on. It’s not something that you think about when you get in trouble. It’s something that you should think about on a daily basis, and that you integrate into everything that you do.”

Photo by Jeff Denlea

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