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Does diversity in health care matter?

Diversity has become a buzzword in many companies, systems and conversations. But what does it mean?

“Diversity is simply difference,” says Kimberlie Warren, PhD, Director of Diversity & Provider Well-Being at Beacon Health System. That difference encompasses everything from race, ethnicity and nationality to culture, age, religion, sexuality and more.

Recognizing, respecting and celebrating diversity is important in all aspects of life – but it’s especially important in health care. “If we in health care can’t relate and respond to those different characteristics and identifiers, we will not be able to provide the care that is needed by those we serve.”

How does diversity affect patients’ health?

Because of differences in identities and backgrounds, certain groups experience different health outcomes, called health disparities. Those different outcomes, such as receiving less pain medication, experiencing higher rates of diseases or recovering less quickly than others, come from something called unconscious bias.

“The brain is wired for safety,” Dr. Warren says. “Often, people feel threatened by difference.” Because of that, people – both inside and outside of health care – experience unconscious biases. Unconscious biases are instances where people unintentionally stereotype, exclude or treat others differently based on differences in race, ethnicity, sexuality and other identities.

Dr. Warren says the impact of health care workers’ unconscious bias hurts African American/Black women, especially when it comes to cancer. Despite being diagnosed with breast cancer less frequently than white women, African American/Black women die from breast cancer at a higher rate. This is partly due to unconscious biases of some health care workers who may not take African American/Black women’s concerns, symptoms or struggles as seriously. That means they receive lower-quality care while having access to fewer resources and educational materials.

“If I can’t trust I’ll get adequate care from my health care system, I won’t show up. And if I do, it’s usually too late,” Dr. Warren explains. “Then, I don’t see or hear people who look and sound like me, which leads to poor outcomes in my healing.”

Alternately, when health care teams are diverse, minority patients feel safer seeking care from them because they know they will be understood. Diverse care teams also have innovative treatment ideas, health practices and more than can benefit all patients, including majority patients.

How does diversity affect health care workers?

“Outstanding care starts with me knowing when I walk into a room with my peers, we all feel safe and comfortable with each other,” says Dr. Warren. When that happens, associates are able to inspire health and connect with heart for each other and their patients, fulfilling Beacon’s mission.

Celebrating and cultivating diversity in leadership is vital, too. “Diversity in leadership leads to innovation, creativity, new perspectives, different and better decisions and ultimately better outcomes.”

To build this culture, Beacon has developed the Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Council. This group is broken into smaller workgroups – Associate Resource Groups – that focus on different initiatives. These groups are based on shared characteristics or life experiences and offer opportunities for support and allyship. Their initiatives include building diversity in leadership, creating inclusive policies, addressing health disparities and more.

“As an organization, we’re opening the opportunity to change habitual ways of thinking that don’t let us embrace diversity.”

How can you work on your diversity, equity and inclusion skills?

Respect for and celebration of diversity is a learned skill. Building it starts with a growth mindset. Understand that you can always grow and change for the better.

Another great step is to simply listen. “If someone brings awareness to something you’ve done, what might you do differently next time?” Dr. Warren says. “Find an accountability partner that can help you overcome missteps that may be unintentionally offensive statements, actions or ideas toward other people.”

Additionally, all Beacon associates have access to Blue Ocean Brain. This learning toolkit helps people learn about, understand and overcome their own unconscious biases. This tool helps associates think differently than they have in the past.

“Beacon Health System has become intentionally committed to increasing diversity at the levels that have the most impact,” says Dr. Warren. “We’re making an environment that’s welcoming of people who feel underrepresented.”

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