Memphis hospitals building a more diverse workforce

Businesses and industries coming to grips with how to achieve an appropriately diverse workforce might want to start taking some cues from an unlikely source in Memphis.

It’s an unlikely source in the sense that the focus more easily shines on saving lives and curing disease and less on a workforce value like diversity. 

Even so, the top leadership at the city’s biggest and most prominent hospitals is getting increasingly diverse. Take Saint Francis Healthcare, St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital, Regional One, Methodist Le Bonheur Healthcare and Baptist Memorial Health Care, for example.

Only two of those hospitals have CEOs who are white men. But diverse leadership among Memphis most prominent hospitals hasn’t yet trickled down to general ranks.

In 2017, only 2.9 percent of the 6,711 students who applied to The University of Tennessee Health Science Center were African-American men. A little more than 7 percent were African-American females, while 26.4 percent were white males.

In terms of actual enrollees in 2017, only 18 were African-American men, compared to 92 African-American women and 242 white males.

Memphis’ top hospitals have launched new initiatives and programs to ensure that those wearing the white coats look like the community whose patients they take care of.

It’s not just “looking like,” either. Talk to hospital executives at institutions like Baptist and Methodist long enough, and they’ll tell you the race is on to diversify their workforce in terms of everything from gender to race to experiences to the kinds of ideas employees can generate and skill sets they have.

Related: "Sixth graders try on STEM careers at UTHSC"

“Respecting, nurturing and encouraging diversity of thought, background and experience contribute to a positive work environment that results in exceptional patient care,” says Saint Francis CEO Dr. Audrey Gregory. “We’re proud to promote an inclusive environment to better allow us to connect to the diverse communities we serve.”

Don Hutson, vice president of talent management for Methodist, says his organization puts a premium on diversity for the same reason. Methodist, which has six hospitals across Memphis, serves a diverse community so hospital leadership wants patients to see their community reflected in the workforce that takes care of them.

Baptist, UTHSC and Baptist College of Health Sciences at the end of April teamed up to host a “Black Men in White Coats” summit, with a keynote presentation from Dr. Dale Okorodudu.

The title of his presentation was “Playing the Game - How to be Successful as a Minority in Medicine.”

More than 30 black male doctors were on hand, along with 50 health care professionals from other disciplines, to greet almost 270 students from 99 colleges and high schools.

The idea was in part to help participants be able to envision themselves with a career in medicine, to show them that the field welcomes a diversity of talent. The event also included sharing resources with students interested in a medical career, as well as giving them networking opportunities with doctors and other healthcare professionals.

Baptist was armed with data such as a 2015 Association of American Medical Colleges report titled “Altering the Course: Black Males in Medicine” which found that the number of black men applying to and graduating from medical school was lower in 2014 than in 1978 in spite of a general increase in the number of black male college graduates.

Keith Norman, Baptist’s vice president of government affairs, said that as the organization reflected on the 50th anniversary of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s assassination in Memphis, the report on black males in medicine and the implications in it began to loom large.

“It provided a good overview of the current state of diversity in medicine,” he said. “While progress has been made in the medical field, especially among minority female medical students and graduates, there is more work to do to have a truly diverse and representative medical force.” 

Among the solutions identified in the report for increasing the diversity of a medical workforce is the existence of support networks and access to information. For Baptist and UTHSC, an event like its Black Men in White Coats summit presented an opportunity to address both at the same time. The stakes, needless to say, are still high, with much more work that needs to be done.

Healthcare organizations see this as not only the right thing to do, but something patients have or will come to expect more of. Dr. Stanley Thompson, staff emergency physician at Baptist Memorial Hospital-DeSoto, agreed that a diverse workforce “makes a difference to patients.”

“Research and anecdotal evidence show that patients are more responsive to physicians with whom they can relate,” he said. “This, ultimately, affects the overall health of patients."
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Read more articles by Andy Meek.