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Executive Voices: Denise Pirrotti Hummel, J.D., CEO of Lead Inclusively


How technology can tackle lagging diversity and inclusion in healthcare.

Denise Pirrotti Hummel, J.D.

Diversity and inclusion are cornerstones of the healthcare industry’s ability to succeed in providing better patient care. Studies have shown that patients respond better to screening and treatment when it’s delivered with respect to their unique cultures. But such efforts are costly and difficult to scale. Many healthcare leaders are focused on overcoming this challenge by leveraging technology that helps educate leaders on how to address disparities that prevent healthcare from delivering at its highest potential.

Denise Pirrotti Hummel is the founder and CEO of Lead Inclusively. She also served on the board of the Healthcare Businesswomen’s Association, a Strategic Alliance Partner of Inside Digital Health™. In her role, she works with a wide range of institutions and individuals to promote the principles of inclusive leadership.

Pirrotti is a graduate of Columbia University and holds a law degree from American University Washington College of Law. Before becoming CEO of Lead Inclusively, Pirrotti was an accountant for 10 years and won the first class action suit under the Americans With Disabilities Act in the 1990s. She was named a top 20 attorney in the U.S. by the American Bar Association.

I spoke with Pirrotti about how tech can be used to help leaders find value in diversity and inclusion, how Lead Inclusively is working to normalize diversity and inclusion in the work place and how health systems can benefit from being more diverse and inclusive.

Editor’s note: This interview has been lightly edited for length, clarity and style.

Samara Rosenfeld: How are you using technology to help leaders leverage diversity and inclusion?

Denise Pirrotti Hummel: Now that we know what behaviors give us the outcomes we are looking for to promote diversity and inclusion in the workplace, we have leveraged technology to scale and sustain those behaviors. We have done this in three ways.

First, when you’re addressing diversity and inclusion, you’re trying to assess and measure leaders and their organizations. Secondarily, you’re trying to create and promote effective learning in these areas. Third, you’re trying to have a means by which to scale and sustain the kind of learning and behavior transformation and organizational transformation that you’re looking for.

In terms of assessing leaders, we now know that the crucial intersection of behaviors is the intersection of inclusive behaviors and innovation behaviors. Technology allows us to produce a digital version of what used to be a manual process—assessing leaders— so they get findings, recommendation reports and action plans pushed straight to their inbox. Immediately upon pushing “finish”, leaders receive these items and can start that day embedding inclusion into their teams’ workflow.

We also turned our live program, called From Unconscious Bias to Inclusive Behaviors, into fully asynchronous e-learning. No longer do we have to do everything live. If an organization wants to scale using technology, they have the ability to upload the program to their learning management system and now they have the ability to scale this nationwide or worldwide.

The third, and perhaps the most significant, is that we have created the Inclusion Virtual Coach app, which uses artificial intelligence, machine learning and nudge messaging in real time, based upon a key focus area that a leader has chosen to deliver microlearning around their priorities at the right time that they need it.

S.R.: What is the Inclusion Virtual Coach app?

Denise Pirrotti Hummel: The app has five distinct areas where leaders can embed inclusion in their team. Hiring, meetings, team development, performance evaluation and strategy and planning.

If the leader chooses to focus on meetings as an opportunity to embed inclusion, they will click on “meetings” and the app will ask when their next meeting takes place. Based on that date and time, the leader is going to get nudge messaging pushed to them around that experience.

So maybe the day prior to the meeting, they’ll get a nudge message that helps them understand why meetings are an important opportunity to embed inclusion. Then right before the meeting, they could get another nudge message with, for example, three quick tips on how to open and conduct an inclusive meeting. After the meeting, they’re going to get an opportunity to reflect by clicking on the journal button, getting a time stamp and inputting information about how the meeting went.

The information being pushed out to the leaders was designed on the basis of neuroscience-based triads that provide context, then quick microlearning and finally an opportunity to reflect. So now we have an actual behavior change taking place instead of just learning that is not necessarily focused in real time on what the leader is focused on.

S.R.: What do some of these tips look like?

Denise Pirrotti Hummel: One example would be a leader getting a nudge right before a meeting reminding them to look out for the quiet voices in the room. The nudge would give the leader some strategies for how to bring those voices out—that’s key to effective inclusion.

Another message could tell the leader to consider saying the rules of the meeting ahead of time and to state that interruptions are not allowed. Because classically, women get interrupted seven to 10 times more than men—that is not effective inclusion.

Before a performance evaluation, the context of the message could be to remember that performance evaluations are a good time to remember your own natural biases. This could help the leader evaluate in a way that is not contrary to the objective facts.

The messages help bring inclusion to the top of mind and give them things to think about, or tips about how to embed inclusive behaviors and reduce bias in whatever process they’re dealing with.

S.R.: How are you using data to help track individual leaders’ development?

Denise Pirrotti Hummel: AI, and machine learning in particular, rely on data and you can’t reap the rewards of machine learning until the app is used for a certain period of time. Once it is being used and we have established a pilot period, we are hoping to correlate the use of the app to certain outcome metrics like reduced attrition, increased ability to advance women and people of color through the talent pipeline and increases in employee engagement.

Now we’re going to figure out where we see these improvements. If we don’t, we’ll ask ourselves where the correlations can be found in terms of the data we’re tracking through app usage. Are positive results correlated with increased use of the app in terms of the minutes the user is engaging? Is it correlated with a particular focus area? Is it correlated with users who choose to reflect versus leaders who ignore the reflection? With this, we get an opportunity to correlate the data with the actual outcome.

Many companies in healthcare are trying to get key performance indicators (KPIs) around inclusion but struggle because it seems so subjective. The fact that some of these companies are willing to engage with the app is evidence of their working toward the KPI of inclusion.

S.R.: What steps can health system leaders take today to be more diverse and inclusive?

Denise Pirrotti Hummel: Diversity is the mix of people in the workplace, so we look to see if we have a balance of men, women, people of color, etc. Inclusion is how those people feel when they get there. Are they working within an inclusive organizational culture led by inclusive leaders who value everyone on their teams?

You can’t have diversity unless you’re recruiting effectively for all people. Part of it is engaging in recruiting strategies that will recruit that diverse mix of talent.

The inclusion piece is making sure you’re tracking where the talent pipeline is leaking. This isn’t just keeping track of how many women your organization has at entry level or how many people of color you have at middle management. It’s more about finding the answers to some pressing questions:

Do you not have enough diverse candidates for a particular position to begin with? Because if you don’t you won’t be able to hire them. How many offers are you making to diverse people? How many are accepting? How many leave within the first 90 days of integrating into their new company? Are you doing a pulse survey to determine how those people are feeling to improve their experience? How many diverse people are on succession plans? How many are being promoted within a year to two years? What are people saying during exit interviews or surveys?

S.R.: How does a more diverse and inclusive workforce benefit health systems?

Denise Pirrotti Hummel: It’s very interesting because the lack of diversity in healthcare impacts patient care. Unlike other industries, it is actually pretty critical because patients are more likely to seek out and follow advice from health professionals who share the same cultural customs. I think we sometimes forget the U.S. population is changing rapidly. It is estimated that by 2044, more than half the nation will be made up of what is now considered to be minority races or groups. Yet healthcare isn’t keeping pace with or reflecting those population changes.

You’re likely to get very inconsistent abilities to not only relate to patients, but to have disparities in diagnosis and effective treatment plans. Above and beyond liability prevention and focusing on that from a compliance point of view, you can be missing a very significant aspect of the diagnosis and potentially have a faulty treatment plan by simply not understanding the nuances of the patient in terms of their cultural norms.

I think diversity and inclusion have more significant ramifications in healthcare than probably any other industry.

S.R.: Is that why it’s important for health systems to address this from the top-down?

Denise Pirrotti Hummel: The top-down issue is important for the same reasons in every industry. Actions speak louder than words and if your institution preaches about valuing inclusion and diversity, but your leaders don’t exemplify the values the organization supposedly holds, that disparity is extremely damaging. And employees follow what they see and hear from leaders. It’s about so much more than just the formal rhetoric that is displayed on the organization’s website.

S.R.: As a former board member of HBA, how is the organization achieving its mission of gender parity in leadership positions?

Denise Pirrotti Hummel: What I’ve observed is that HBA is making incredible efforts to provide education to organizations about the importance of diversity, what it means for leaders to be inclusive and to build bridges between organizations to understand what works in this arena and what does not.

Based on the fact that it is the Healthcare Businesswomen’s Association, it has made incredible strides in reaching out to men as male champions and to be very inclusive of men on this journey to address this as a workforce issue and not necessarily a gender issue.

S.R.: How are digital health tools affecting diversity and inclusion in healthcare, particularly for women?

Denise Pirrotti Hummel: The most significant thing about technology as it relates to healthcare for women is access to healthcare. That improves with the advent of the internet. Many women can just get online and Google some of their symptoms.

For example, the symptoms for heart attack for women and men vary significantly. One of the reasons women die instead of getting help is that the symptoms aren’t the classic symptoms people are used to seeing. The internet started changing women’s access to medical knowledge. And it has gotten progressively better from there because there are many health institutions and practices where women can email their doctors and get responses in real time.

That to me is the primary thing — access to medical care and knowledge using virtual interactions and the advent of the internet.

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