Many employers consider diversity and inclusion (D&I) a top workplace priority — and diversity and inclusion in healthcare has never been more important. Disparities in health outcomes among racial and ethnic groups have been exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic, which disproportionately impacts people of color.

Systemic factors such as food insecurity and lack of access to housing, education and economic opportunities contribute to health inequities. But studies show that increasing diversity in healthcare organizations not only creates stronger workplaces, it also leads to more equitable health outcomes for patients. For example, one study found that Black doctors could reduce the gap in cardiovascular mortality between Black and White males by 19%. With that in mind, let’s look at how healthcare employers can advance diversity and inclusion for employees and patients alike.

Diversity in healthcare where to start? 

Diversity means hiring a workforce that reflects the communities in which you operate. Inclusion refers to your actions and behaviors that create a culture where employees feel equally valued, trusted and authentic; have equal opportunities for advancement; and can fully contribute. D&I is also related to belonging, a feeling of community with the people and environments that make us feel connected; it means your opinions are valued and you can be yourself at work.

But it takes all of these elements to create a workplace culture where employees can thrive. For instance, if you hire a diverse team without considering whether all of them will feel included, this will likely lead to turnover.

To learn more, we spoke with experts from Just Health Collective — a consulting firm that helps organizations build a healthcare system that is fair, impartial and representative of its community — and Sentara Healthcare, a 12-hospital nonprofit system in Virginia and North Carolina. Based on their insights, here’s a holistic approach to improving diversity and inclusion in healthcare:

Educate yourself and your teams

It’s important for healthcare organization leaders to learn how diversity and inclusion impacts the workplace and the industry as a whole. That means proactively seeking D&I training and educational resources to support your team’s development. 

Duane Reynolds, CEO and founder of Just Health Collective, suggests covering a range of topics, including unconscious bias, antiracism, microaggressions and cultural humility, to improve the knowledge, skills and behaviors of healthcare employees. D&I training can also be part of new employee orientation and onboarding.

“To achieve success, this training should be continuous and inclusive of as many employees as possible, including both clinical and nonclinical staff,” says Reynolds.

See how your organization stacks up

Now that you understand how internalized bias and structural barriers impact healthcare, examine your organization through this lens. First, analyze self-reported demographic data to better understand the makeup of your existing staff, then compare this to local U.S. Census data. Does your workforce represent the communities you serve? How do promotion and attrition rates compare across demographic groups?

Next, collect qualitative input from employees. Solicit feedback through forums such as anonymized surveys, group discussions and one-on-one conversations. Learn more about their experience and invite them to share ideas for improvement. Do employees feel a sense of belonging and psychological safety? Do staff from different demographic groups or departments report different experiences?

When Sentara Healthcare created their diversity and inclusion strategy, “we leveraged workforce data and our engagement scores to identify where our immediate opportunity areas existed,” says Dana Beckton, Sentara’s chief diversity officer. “We also listened to our customers, patients and employees. With their feedback, we created programs that addressed their needs.”

Treat diversity in healthcare like any other organizational goal

Unfortunately, it’s common for organizations to treat D&I initiatives like checking a box, simply participating in one training session or making performative statements. Other times, D&I efforts are siloed in the HR department rather than being integrated across the entire organization.

To avoid these missteps, treat diversity and inclusion in healthcare like any company-wide goal. That includes:

  • Getting buy-in from organization leadership. 
  • Providing the resources required to enact meaningful change, such as dedicated staffing and budget. 
  • Creating an actionable, data-driven strategy with clear tactics and metrics and an implementation plan. 

For example, Beckton says, her team got buy-in for Sentara’s diversity and inclusion strategy by aligning D&I initiatives with business needs and seeking input from executive leadership while developing the program.

“This may be some of the most important work we can do [to help] our organizations to thrive in the future,” says Sentara’s Chief Human Resources Officer, Becky Sawyer. “This isn’t work that can be done … [on] the side.” She also highlights the importance of designating an executive who can champion D&I efforts, hold teams accountable and challenge legacy thinking.

Integrate diversity and inclusion into hiring and talent development

First, assess your existing processes. Ask yourself questions such as:

  • Where are you sourcing talent? 
  • Are diverse teams involved in the recruitment process? 
  • Do you consider a diverse slate of candidates for each role? 
  • Do you use rubric scoring — which uses predefined criteria to assess employee performance — to reduce bias in your review process? 
  • What mentorship, sponsorship and professional development opportunities do you offer to help underrepresented employees, interns and residents receive the support and resources they need?

Next, Reynolds suggests broadening your talent sources to remove bias and barriers: “Create pipeline programs to recruit talent from public university minority achievement programs; historically black colleges and universities; diverse professional organizations; and executive recruitment firms who specialize in finding racial, ethnic and culturally diverse talent,” he says. 

You can also work with community partners to grow your pipeline. Sentara, for example, established an educational program with local workforce training organizations. 

“The program is dedicated to retraining unemployed and underemployed Virginians across the commonwealth,” says Sawyer. “We hope this pilot will be a model for creating pathways into healthcare that have not previously existed.”

Contribute to health equity improvements in your community

Committing to diversity in healthcare goes beyond how you hire — it means addressing structural inequities, too. Sentara’s educational program is part of a broader initiative to address social determinants of health in underserved communities across Virginia, including housing, economic opportunities and community wellness.

“Tackling health disparities can feel like an overwhelming challenge for provider organizations,” Reynolds says. “The first step is recognizing that as a provider of care, you work for an organization that needs to be part of the fabric of your community, rather than an island where people come to receive treatment.” What’s more, he adds, community partners can work with healthcare organizations to tackle issues from multiple angles. 

Iris Lundy, Sentara’s director of health equity, agrees: “It’s important for us to listen to our community members and understand what they see as the most pressing issues. Building and maintaining relationships with faith-based, nonprofit and other trusted leaders is critical. We must be visible in, and working alongside, the community to improve health.”

It may be tempting to put diversity and inclusion on the back burner amid the challenges of COVID-19. But truly caring for employees and patients means emphasizing diversity and inclusion in healthcare — and ensuring equal access for everyone.