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At Northwell Health, diversity is a focus, not a project

Article

The New York health system has been recognized as a leader for its diversity efforts. CEO Michael Dowling says hospitals need to make diversity ‘part of your DNA.’

Northwell Health has focused on improving the diversity of the system’s workforce for years, and those efforts have earned national recognition.

Diversity Inc. ranked Northwell as the nation’s leading hospital in diversity for three straight years (2020-22), and this year, the New York health system was placed in the organization’s Hall of Fame.

Michael Dowling, president and CEO of Northwell Health, says diversity is “a major overall commitment of the organization.”

“It’s a focus,” Dowling tells Chief Healthcare Executive®. “It’s not a project.”

Dowling talked with Chief Healthcare Executive about the need for a system-wide focus, encouraging staff to move up the ladder, and preparing promising employees to succeed as they move up the organization.

(See part of our conversation with Michael Dowling. The story continues below.)

‘Integral to the culture’

Since Northwell is based in New York and serves an extraordinarily diverse population, the system strives to reflect the community, Dowling says.

“If you took advantage of the talent of all of the people from all the disparate backgrounds and all of the different ethnicities, people from all over the world that are here, and we optimize the talents from all of them, imagine how good we would be,” Dowling says.

Women hold 64% of the leadership positions at Northwell, Dowling says. The system has Black and Hispanic leaders in key roles.

Still, Dowling says there is room to improve.

“We have a pretty diverse organization, including in the leadership arena,” Dowling says. “We're not as good as we need to be. We have holes. We're well aware of it. We talk about it.”

Health systems that want to improve diversity can’t simply delegate the mission to a task force or human resources. “Make it part of your DNA,” he says.

“It has to be integral to the culture of the way you operate,” Dowling says. “If it's just a project on the side, it becomes a project on the side and it doesn't work.”

Beyond simply getting people in the door and working in the system, Dowling says it’s important that employees of underrepresented groups know that they will have opportunities for advancement.

And Dowling says, “It’s not just about affirmative action.”

Dowling says it’s critical to provide support for team members to enable them to successfully take on more responsibilities. He says Northwell works to spot promising talent and prepare them for bigger roles.

“I just want to make sure that when we do it, people are ready and we're not setting people up to fail,” he says.

“I'm a big believer that you create the opportunity, you provide the mentoring and the support for people so that they can move up the organization, but you do it at the right time,” Dowling says. “You do it when people are ready. You don't do it and set people up and put them in positions, and then it just fails and everybody falls back.”

Key to patient care

Dowling says a diverse staff is critical in serving a New York population that includes so many different cultures and backgrounds.

Jennifer Mieres, Northwell Health's chief diversity and inclusion officer, says it's key to tie diversity to patient care. (Photo: Northwell Health)

Jennifer Mieres, Northwell Health's chief diversity and inclusion officer, says it's key to tie diversity to patient care. (Photo: Northwell Health)

“If you're wanting to provide comprehensive care to different disparate groups of individuals and diverse groups of individuals, having a diverse staff on the front lines, and diverse staff in middle management and leadership positions, is unbelievably important,” Dowling says.

“It's a motivating factor for not only the staff, but also important factor for the patients where they see people like them in a leadership position in the organization,” Dowling says. “It actually helps to promote not only the sense of belonging, the sense that we are organized to focus on this issue, but also enhance the overall well being and the health of the population.”

Jennifer Mieres, Northwell Health’s chief diversity and inclusion officer, began in that role in 2010. In a February 2022 interview with Chief Healthcare Executive, Mieres said a critical element of Northwell’s success has been tying diversity to improving patient care.

“This is about health outcomes and seeing our patients as partners,” Mieres said.

As part of improving patient care and closing disparities, Mieres stressed the need to engage with the community, which she said was not a strong area for Northwell in the past. She says Northwell managed to build stronger ties by engaging on a listening tour in different neighborhoods and forming an office of community and population health. With those steps, Northwell has been building partnerships with the community.

More hospitals and health systems are striving to improve their diversity on staff, and Dowling notes that it’s become a popular topic in the industry.

“It gets a lot of lip service these days,” Dowling says. “It's like the new thing that everybody wants to talk about.

“The danger with that is it becomes something that is hot for the month or hot for the year, and then it disappears,” Dowling says. “The key is to make it part of the ongoing culture of the organization, then there is sustainability over time.”

Read more: Diversity in rural hospitals: Going beyond matching the community

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