Enhancing diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) in healthcare is essential. Let’s talk about what it is, why it’s important, and how we can make it happen.

How can diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) be applied to patient care?

  • Diversity: Take time to understand the backgrounds of the patients being served – including culture, gender, sexual orientation, religious beliefs, and socioeconomic status.
  • Equity: Make sure all patients have access to the high-quality, cost-effective care, therapies, and resources they need to stay healthy and recover quickly.
  • Inclusion: Give patients a voice in their own care and hire a diverse staff that reflects the patients who come through your doors.

Why is DEI important in healthcare?

As with many industries, healthcare leaders are putting greater emphasis on diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) efforts. While in recent years, we’ve likely all heard these terms thrown about the workplace, DEI is not limited to recruiting, retaining, and growing a diverse workforce.

Investing in DEI in healthcare can ensure equitable access to high-quality care and therapies for all patients, fostering diverse and inclusive work settings, hiring and retaining a team that reflects the patient population you serve, and cultivating and sustaining relationships with broader communities.

Unfortunately, the healthcare industry is no different from the many other sectors persistently challenged to prioritize and improve diversity and cultural competence in healthcare.  This is a systemic issue, and healthcare executives have a critical role to play in providing education and developing standards around cultural competence.

Clarify team members and leaders from health systems and health plans across the country participated in a discussion surrounding cultural competence at the Healthcare Executive eForum. One of the biggest takeaways was there needs to be more top-down executive leadership to prioritize DEI initiatives if greater progress is to be made within their organizations.

While the issues surrounding the lack of diversity and inclusion in healthcare organizations are too large and complex to tackle in the next few paragraphs, here are a few of learnings from the open discussion:

Health executives need standardized metrics for evaluating cultural competence in healthcare to improve DEI

What is cultural competence? According to the discussion, cultural competence can be defined as responding appropriately to people of varying backgrounds in a way that recognizes their differences and allows individuals to feel respected and valued.

When it comes to DEI in healthcare, the improvement initiatives that stick are ones that can be measured and subsequently improved upon.

However, it still feels as if health systems are having a tough time implementing DEI solutions. Many executives emphasized the importance of health systems reinforcing culturally competent interactions between patients, providers, and other staff.

There was strong agreement amongst the attendees that “everything happens from the top down,” especially for larger, regional health systems where inclusivity and diversity look different from location to location. Therefore, the measures taken to boost diversity and cultural competence in healthcare must be designed by senior leadership, with specific KPIs in mind.

In this article, Wharton management professor Stephanie Creary, PhD, explains that while many organizations are doing DEI work, it is often undervalued, leading to sub-optimal results.

Creary states, “the lack of consistency in codifying and treating DEI work as a merit-worthy endeavor for all employees … threatens its success.”

How can DEI efforts be more effective?

Creary offers a framework for how companies can change DEI work from an “unrewarded side hustle to a merit-worthy practice that is valued across the company.”

  • M: Make DEI goals and work actionable, measurable, and evidence-based.
  • E: Elevate DEI work internally and externally.
  • R: Require leaders and managers to participate in behavior-based DEI trainings.
  • I: Identify leaders and non-managerial employees willing to serve as DEI sponsors.
  • T: Treat DEI work as core rather than peripheral work.

Creary, suggests that while everyone needs to be bought in, a top-down approach can be effective, “Yes — everyone needs to take actions to address systemic racism and DEI. But leaders — including the CEO — need to treat the actions being taken as MERIT-worthy in order to ensure that DEI initiatives and efforts to eradicate systemic racism are sustainable far beyond the ebbs and flows of the current news cycle.”

Addressing DEI disparities starts with acknowledgment and understanding

The COVID-19 pandemic highlighted and exacerbated health inequities that have disproportionately affected racial and ethnic minorities. There was a consensus that organizations who want to provide culturally competent health care must be more in touch with the needs of the service population.

Many healthcare executives spoke of their positive experiences with community initiatives and partnerships with larger organizations that provide solutions around health equity and inclusion to better serve their patient population.

Sherri Neal, Chief Diversity Officer of HCA Healthcare, leads a team of more than 500 Equity of Care coordinators dedicated to delivering culturally competent healthcare. As part of this approach, their services include communication assistance programs to ensure every patient they serve is able to effectively communicate with caregivers and easily access care-related information.

Diversity within healthcare institutions means more than diversity in doctors

Echoed time and again during the discussion was the importance of recognizing inclusivity and diversity amongst all healthcare workers, not just physicians.

Establishing rules of cultural governance and setting clear expectations around how all members of the organization—from nurses to PA’s to C-suite—should reinforce cultural competency is critical to tangibly integrating diversity, equity, and inclusion in healthcare, day to day. One health system executive shared his experience establishing a diversity committee to ensure culturally competent health care was provided at every level in the organization.

There was also consensus that discussions around diversity, equity, and inclusion in healthcare do not need to be dull, repetitive, check-the-box exercises for the purpose of hitting a quota. There was overwhelming agreement amongst the participants that “food is the new universal language,” and many anecdotes were shared of how celebrating different ethnic foods for certain holidays and sharing recipes has brought teammates closer together.

As a final note, tangible change in this space requires an understanding of unconscious bias and a differentiation of cultural bias from cultural difference. Embracing cultural difference and the subsequent perspectives that are heard when we do so is what helps us grow as people and as organizations.

As Dr. Tom Mihaljevic, president and CEO of Cleveland Clinic, put it in an article for Modern Healthcare: “Some may view diversity and inclusion as wise business practices. And I suppose it is. Ultimately, though, it’s simply the right thing to do.”

Clarify Health’s commitment to DEIS

At Clarify, we are on a mission to power better care​ by optimizing every patient journey​. We believe that a happy, diverse, and impact-driven team is critical to our mission of transforming healthcare. Our employees are architecting the future of healthcare with a deep commitment to creating a system that is more equitable, efficient, and affordable. To learn more about Clarify Health and our commitment to diversity, equity, inclusion, and sustainability (DEIS), check out our DEIS statement.