Downloading Success: The Evolving Role of Healthcare Chief Diversity Officer

Contributor: Lisa DeSimone Arthur
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As awareness grows across the U.S. of the pervasive social injustices and inequities that impact communities of color, the Chief Diversity Officer (CDO) has become a crucial leader in hospitals and healthcare systems. CDOs have been charged with creating diverse and inclusive environments for staff and patients. In the wake of Covid-19, renewed attention has been focused on chronic illness and the social determinants of health. CDOs are at the forefront of addressing these healthcare disparities; their efforts are focused on developing strategies which will close the gap on health inequities at their organizations and in their communities.

In our work as executive search consultants, my colleagues and I support many hospitals, health systems, academic medical centers, and medical schools in recruiting inaugural CDOs to address these important issues. As these organizations hire inaugural Chief Diversity Officers, they face the challenge of shaping the role to position it for success. Below are some of the fundamental responsibilities – internal and external – that are being given to today's healthcare CDOs.

Internal Responsibilities

Strategic Planning: CDOs are developing comprehensive plans which promote diverse, inclusive and equitable organizational cultures and to facilitate awareness and education for healthcare providers to ensure that communities of color receive optimal care. Successful CDOs are able to accomplish this important work at an internal and external level. Initial efforts typically focus on addressing diversity, inclusion and equity within the organization, including diversity recruitment and retention.

Climate Survey: Early steps to accomplish the internal work include developing diversity climate surveys. CDOs will utilize survey results to identify organizational development opportunities. Specific seminars, workshops and diversity, inclusion and equity programs will be developed, including unconscious bias training. The Diversity, Inclusion and Equity strategic plan may be amended or augmented to reflect issues identified in the climate survey. As data-driven leaders, CDOs will develop diversity dashboards to track metrics and monitor progress. 

Recruiting Top Diverse Talent: The CDO will work with search committees and other hiring parties to ensure diverse candidate pools. The work must take place at every level of the organization and have the support of the executive leadership team, in terms of messaging and resource support. The CDO can communicate to all leaders that recruitment for diversity is a priority.

Culturally Competent Curriculum Development: If the organization has teaching and academic programs or is a medical or health sciences school, the CDO will coordinate efforts with diversity resources at medical/health science schools to ensure that a culturally competent curriculum is developed. The curriculum will include a basic understanding of the complexities of care and a foundational respect and understanding of caring for patients from different backgrounds and cultures. Further, it is imperative for the CDO of the academic medical center and the CDO of the medical school to work together to align their broader strategies.

In addition, the CDO will support efforts to create pipeline programs to recruit diverse students and faculty. The CDO will partner with academic leaders to develop student programs to create an optimal learning environment and support academic and professional development for underrepresented faculty and students. The CDO will broaden efforts to build a diverse faculty by providing recruitment tools and educational programs for Search Committees.

Resources and Budget: It is critical that the CDO has adequate resources including funding and headcount to accomplish the core aspects laid out in strategic planning. Too often CDOs are hindered in their mission because of limited support, rendering them ineffective or leaving them simply as figureheads. In this regard, it is important for the diversity officer to have the backing of the CEO and top leadership so that proper resources are allocated.

External Relationships and Community Engagement

As the internal work progresses, external efforts are imperative to address health inequity within the community and region. CDOs are skilled communicators. They encourage and facilitate crucial conversations about diversity, inclusion and equity.

Coalition Building and Partnerships: The CDO is an important connector to community leaders, including other providers, government leaders, and local community non-profits. As a coalition builder, the CDO plays a crucial role in developing community partnerships which can foster health equity and dissect the complexities of the social determinants of health. Partnerships at the national level can include those with member associations, legislators, and government authorities.

Hospitals and healthcare systems can play a key role in improving health outcomes for diverse communities. Strategies that foster community outreach, and a deep understanding of the complex factors that impact health outcomes, are key. As more healthcare providers are educated on these complexities, underserved communities will benefit.

Advocating for Digital Health: As digital medicine continues to mature, health systems need to consider how these digital health strategies will service diverse populations and communities. Chief Diversity Officers will have to consider their unique patient populations and their specific needs when it comes to accessing emerging digital health tools like cell phones, wearables, and social media. These tools have greatly moved the needle towards patient-centric care, but it is important that everyone benefits from them, and this will be part of the CDO's responsibilities.

As the CDO role expands, organizations are realizing this individual must be given more authority among senior leadership in order to ensure that progress is being made regarding diversity, equity, and inclusion. Resources including headcount and budget show the commitment of the organization to accomplishing the chief diversity officer's work—so that, beyond lip service, meaningful change can be implemented.

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