Racism still looms in hospital C-suites, Modern Healthcare reports

Health care organizations are trying to increase the diversity of their C-suite, but minorities are still significantly underrepresented—and one minority physician argues that speaking out about discrimination "can be a killer professionally," Shelby Livingston writes for Modern Healthcare.

Q&A: How to build a diverse leadership bench

Minorities remain rare in health care C-suites

Just 14% of hospital board members and 9% of CEOs are minorities, according to a study by the American Hospital Association's Institute for Diversity and Health Equity—figures that haven't budged since 2013. Further, only 11% of hospital executive leaders are minorities, a number that actually declined from 12% in 2013.

Livingston spoke to professionals pursuing their master's degrees in health administration at the University of Alabama at Birmingham, writing that "the safety of a classroom setting" enabled them to discuss discrimination and other sensitive workplace topics. Some said they must follow unwritten codes of conduct to ensure their career progress.

Julian Booker, a black associate professor and the medical director of cardiovascular imaging at the University of Alabama, Birmingham, said, "Speaking too much can be a killer professionally. If I speak about my experiences, then I'm perceived as weak, or I'm perceived as angry. I'm perceived as not a team player; I'm perceived as a troublemaker. So to talk about these things openly and professionally, you're setting yourself up for failure."

Similarly, Wardrick Griffin, the assistant chief of practice officer at Gadsden Regional Medical Center in Alabama, who is also black, said, "We're not to a comfortable place where I can have that kind of real discussion at my work environment without some repercussions in some form or fashion, which makes us uncomfortable to speak our truth."

One minority CEO's advice: Don't be afraid of conversations

According to Gene Woods, the CEO of Atrium Health, who is both black and Spanish, part of the problem is that "we're still uncomfortable talking about matters of race."

Woods advises CEOs to overcome that discomfort and "have a conversation with their board. How do we reflect our communities? Where do we need additional voices in the room for those who aren't represented in our conversations?"

Atrium has made progress on diversifying its own leadership ranks: About one-third of its board positions are held by minorities, according to Woods. "You start thinking about who needs to be represented in solving for these social determinants of health," Woods explained. "You start thinking about the police officers that need to be brought into the conversation, the schools that need to be brought in, the businesses, and once you start working from that perspective you start getting the diverse voices that you need to solve those issues. Maybe some of those voices need to be more present inside of the organization."

Why diversity in the C-suite matters to patients

A diverse C-suite can contribute meaningfully to patients' care, Livingston writes. According to a 2003 study from the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine, black patients who saw doctors who were also black reported being more satisfied with their care and rated their doctors as "more participatory" than patients who saw doctors of another race.

Antoinette Hardy-Waller, the CEO of the Leverage Network and a member of the board of stewardship trustees at Catholic Health Initiatives, said, "Until you get individuals who understand and appreciate the culture and the challenges within (minority) communities, you can't address the risks and implications that the individuals in those communities go through."

According to Hardy-Waller, the best way to create a culture of understanding is to ensure that minorities are represented on hospital boards. "People will say that, 'We want to be diverse, but we can't find the diverse talent,'" said Hardy-Waller. "I know for a fact that there's huge diverse talent out there and they're hiding in plain sight" (Livingston, Modern Healthcare, 2/24).

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