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Leadership Series

Health Equity and Leadership: Why It Matters

Veronica Martin-Posley, DNP, RN, NEA-BC, Division SVP & Chief Nurse Executive, St. Luke’s Health Texas Division

February 02, 2024 Posted in: Leadership

Health equity is more than just a buzzword. Though Black History Month is an excellent time to take stock of how we’re doing with health equity, the topic remains important all year long and affects numerous different populations. Taking steps to overcome obstacles to health care and remove preventable health disparities is crucial to improving health outcomes for all Americans. At St. Luke’s Health (SLH), we understand how advancing health equity goes beyond saving lives—it changes workplace cultures for the better.

Health Equity Is Good for Business

Health equity is often addressed by a hospital’s Diversity, Equity and Inclusion (DEI) department. These programs have recently come under attack in certain sectors, but it’s important to understand that health equity is not about “diversity for diversity’s sake.” The disparity in health outcomes between races is real. Even prior to the pandemic, a lack of health equity was prematurely killing nearly 200 African Americans each day, according to the CDC. Those disparities also come at a huge financial cost—estimates range as high as $451 billion annually. Improving health equity improves your bottom line.

Additionally, improved health equity is good for your workforce. The healthier your community is, the healthier the people you hire from it will be. Better health equity can improve workplace productivity and lower your institution’s health care costs. Meeting health equity and diversity goals can also ensure your institution is eligible for a wider range of philanthropic and governmental grants.

Why Health Equity Matters in Leadership

It’s important for patients to see a hospital staffed with providers, nurses and staff who look like them, and research shows patients tend to do better when they have diverse caregivers. In a community as diverse as Houston, it’s crucial that our hiring in every department takes this into account, so we can better address issues such as language barriers.

However, having a diverse nursing staff without having much diversity in the leadership suite isn’t fully advancing health equity. As of 2015, just 14 percent of hospital Chief Medical Officers and only 9 percent of CEOs were not white. Without diverse representation up top, organizations are less likely to prioritize health equity. In fact, one survey found “lack of leadership commitment” was the third most common barrier in place to organizations implementing health equity goals.

How to Cultivate a Culture of Diversity

There are several steps your organization can take to better cultivate a diverse leadership culture.

  • Get everyone on board with DEI. If your DEI or health equity team is siloed off from leadership, it’s likely doomed to fail. You need your entire leadership team—white, Black and Hispanic; male and female—taking active roles to both implement and support equity initiatives.

  • Hire broadly. If you’re confining your minority hires to only positions that focus on diversity or inequity, you’re selling yourself short.

  • Make a visible commitment to equity. Hire a C-suite-level health equity officer. Even better, fund an entire department.

  • Mentor, mentor, mentor. Identify your junior employees from nonrepresented groups who are interested in leadership and shepherd them into leadership positions.

  • Rethink leadership training. Much leadership training is stuck in old models that presumed a team of members from similar backgrounds. Changing to an equity-centered model can improve leadership competencies to better serve the modern world.

  • Set realistic and achievable goals. Hiring a DEI officer and expecting overnight change in your company culture is unrealistic—and unfair to your hire. Successful initiatives will take years to be fully implemented. Be patient.

There are many approaches to pursue a culture of health equity and diversity, but whatever path you take, it must be an ongoing process. One-time workshops or training sessions won’t create change.

Supporting Your Team

No matter how diversely you hire, your leadership team won’t stay that way unless everyone on it feels supported. 

  • Keep an open mind and realize that your plans may need to evolve as the bigger picture takes shape.

  • Make sure everyone understands that your health equity goals and business goals are complementary, not separate.

  • Support your younger minority employees with opportunities to help them overcome imposter syndrome.

  • Take steps to get stakeholders such as your board and community leaders engaged in the changes. 

The better you set your leadership members up for success, the more fully you will be able to make strides toward improving health equity.

What St. Luke’s Health Is Doing

SLH is committed to advancing health equity for patients, staff and leadership. Part of our mission statement is to “emphasize human dignity and social justice as we create healthier communities.” To that end, we are invested in improving the diversity of our workforce, because we know we can’t practice equity if it is not at the core of our system. Along with our sister institutions, we support the More in Common Alliance, a 10-year, $100 million dollar partnership to boost the number of African American and minority physicians. We have also improved our cultural competency training, so all our employees understand how best to provide care to vulnerable and underserved populations.

We know improving health equity is a comprehensive process that doesn’t happen overnight. At SLH, we firmly believe that our commitment to humankindness in all aspects of work and care will help us lead the way in our community.

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