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It’s time to improve diversity in the healthcare C-suite

June 16, 2021
From the June 2021 issue of HealthCare Business News magazine

By Sheila Talton

Whenever the topic of improving diversity in healthcare (especially in the C-suite) comes up, it’s natural to frame the discussion by citing statistics. For example, according to a 2019 study by the American College of Hospital Executives (ACHE) and the American Hospital Association (AHA), 89% of all hospital CEOs were White, yet only 60% of the overall U.S. population fits that description. This despite a 20-year effort to attract more minorities into undergraduate and graduate-level health administration programs.

I’ve lived the reality reflected in those numbers. Many times in my career I have seen White peers put into the pipeline to run very large businesses, when I had similar or even stronger leadership and management skills. While it’s true that a number of women and people of color make it to the vice-presidential level, once you reach the C-suite and above they become increasingly rare.

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Despite the larger percentages of women and people of color across the clinician landscape and in operational roles, healthcare is no different than other industries relative to lack of diversity in the upper echelons of leadership. There has been some progress within Blue Cross Blue Shield, where there are more women and people of color with broader roles, but most of the commercial payors and the providers still have a lot of work to do. (One notable exception is Kaiser Permanente, which had a visionary leader in former CEO Bernard Tyson, who, sadly, passed away in 2019. Tyson, an African American, reshaped Kaiser’s C-suite to include women and people of color.)

The lack of diversity in healthcare leadership is indicative of larger challenges we face as a society. However, by viewing the situation through the lens of societal or workplace fairness and equity, we tend to overlook another price we pay for our myopia and lack of outreach: A missed opportunity to improve healthcare overall. And that missed opportunity is our failure to fully leverage all the human resources available to the healthcare industry, if only providers and payors would cast a wide net.

There is a broad talent pool of bright, ambitious, and well-educated leaders-in-waiting who are eager to make their marks in one of America’s most critical industries. Yet they are not being given a chance to demonstrate their abilities or to assume greater responsibilities, even though so many women and people of color are more than qualified to fill leadership positions.

Fixing the problem
We can't afford to not be using all of the skills and talents we have available to us, both in healthcare and the larger business world. Unfortunately, as the numbers show, whatever the business community in and out of healthcare has been doing for the past two decades simply isn’t working. It’s time for some bold moves.

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