Why workforce diversity matters in the health care industry
There are few issues more crucial in the national conversation than health care access. The heart of the U.S. health care debate revolves around how to best provide a basic, affordable level of care for as many Americans as possible. But along with this question comes the corollary issue of how to meet the health care needs of our country’s rapidly diversifying population.
According to the Pew Research Center, 85% of the U.S. population in 1960 was white, but that figure is projected to drop to 47% by 2050. The U.S. Census Bureau estimates that more than half the nation’s children will belong to a minority race or ethnic group by 2020.
There is also the issue of language diversity. U.S. government statistics reveal, for instance, that about 35% of Texas households speaks a language other than English at home.
The intersection of diversity and health care
As our nation diversifies, it becomes increasingly essential for health care institutions to maintain a racially and culturally diverse workforce to establish and maintain patient trust. Some patients may not care whether their physician or another health care worker is of the same race, speaks their language, or is familiar with their customs and traditions.
For many others, however, workforce diversity (or the lack of it) may well determine whether they seek out or shun a particular medical facility — or get any medical care at all. And the decision not to seek care frequently leads to disparities in the quality of health care received by minorities, with often tragic outcomes.
Consider these health care disparities established by numerous studies:
- The average waiting time for African Americans needing a kidney transplant is almost twice that of white patients.
- African American women with breast cancer are 67% more likely to die from the disease than white women.
- The mortality rate for African American infants is two times greater than that of white infants.
- Hispanic and African American young people are substantially more likely to die from diabetes than white youth.
- When they do seek medical assistance, racial and ethnic minorities generally are more satisfied with their care and more likely to report receiving higher-quality care when treated by a health professional from their own racial or ethnic background.
A workforce diversity game plan
In response to health care disparities in the underserved communities in its service area, Baylor Scott & White Health conducted a series of three community needs assessments. Officials held community listening sessions during which patients and community members had an opportunity to explain their needs and the ways they wished to see their health care delivered.
These outreach sessions helped Baylor Scott & White Health administrators become more aware of the health care needs of minority communities in its service area, and the insights they took away subsequently informed the initiatives they developed with the goal of improving health care outcomes in those traditionally underserved communities.
One of these initiatives is the Community Advocates Program, which puts student volunteers to work in several Baylor Scott & White Health emergency departments to help those in need gain access to community resources, such as area food banks and counseling centers. Another is the Community Health Workers Program, which sends community health workers out into minority communities to help individuals gain access to basic medical necessities and assist them in securing long-term professional medical care.
Finally, to improve its quality of care through professional staff diversity and increased racial and cultural awareness, Baylor Scott & White Health appointed a full-time diversity officer, Guwan Jones.
Leading through listening
Jones has served as vice president of workforce planning and chief diversity officer since January 2016, and she’s been a Baylor Scott & White Health employee for more than nine years. She oversees a workforce of almost 50,000 employees and is responsible for helping Baylor Scott & White Health develop a workforce that’s not only more racially and culturally diverse, but also more understanding of the different attitudes, customs and mores of its patients.
“I get a chance to propel people’s career aspirations and help build an environment where they feel inspired and excited,” Jones says. “I also get to look at things like: Are we providing the right language assistance for patients? And are there opportunities to better get that voice of the patient in the decisions we’re making?”
Driven by her desire to help others since her youth, Jones believes firmly that diversity is about more than achieving some sort of balance — and it’s certainly about more than telling others what they may be doing wrong. To Jones, diversity is about trying to understand others to overcome conscious and subconscious biases and provide a more positive patient experience.
Jones believes that a curious spirit and a willingness to listen are the two essential keys to better understanding and improved patient care. “One of the things I want to leave with the organization as my legacy is this idea of always being curious,” she says. “You can always learn something from someone. That’s what I spend my time doing, just learning and listening to people.”
Through listening, she attempts to gain insight into the perspectives of others from different communities and cultures, while offering them alternative views in a noncritical, nonjudgmental atmosphere.
“Perception is reality for people. Until you give them alternatives and new pieces of information and context, your perception is your reality,” she says. “So listening to what people say, understanding what community leaders think of us, and working in those pockets where there are opportunities for us to better our reputation and our offerings for a particular population is really how I figure out what to work on.”
She hopes that Baylor Scott & White Health’s increasingly diverse workforce will carry that same curiosity and willingness to listen into their daily interactions with patients from all races and cultures.
Thanks to the efforts of Jones and fellow administrators, Baylor Scott & White Health’s workforce reflects the nation’s growing diversity, with minorities making up 46% of its employees and 27% of its leadership positions. Nearly 16% of its total workforce is African American, 14.7% is Hispanic and 10.1% is Asian, with smaller percentages of Native Americans and Hawaiian/Pacific Islanders.
Ambitious goals for the future
Baylor Scott & White Health’s diversity efforts have garnered national recognition. In 2017, the organization received the Best Workplaces for Diversity award from Great Place to Work and Fortune magazine.
Despite the accolades, Jones realizes that much work remains to be done. One of her main objectives is to recruit more women for leadership positions in the Baylor Scott & White Health system.
“We know that women drive health care decisions, so it makes sense for us to get that voice at the table,” she says.
Her efforts to encourage gender diversity involve supporting more extensive networking among women and in-house efforts to prepare female employees for positions of leadership.
“It’s an exciting time for women in our health care system right now. There’s nothing but opportunity.”