Kaiser Permanente CEO Greg Adams on inclusion: ‘This is who we are’ | HLTH Conference

He talked about efforts to confront racism, the social factors affecting health, and he urged leaders to own the opportunity to make things better.

Las Vegas - Kaiser Permanente Chair and CEO Greg Adams says he normally wants to move full speed ahead.

In June 2020, Kaiser Permanente vowed to address structural racism. But rather than simply announcing new initiatives and programs, Adams said the organization began with listening sessions of doctors and staff. He wanted to know more and hear more about their experiences.

As a Black man, Adams has endured bigotry in his own life, and he said it was painful to hear of the racism some workers have endured, including within the organization.

“It was life-changing for me as an individual and as a leader,” Adams said.

Adams talked about improving equity and confronting racism during the first day of the HLTH Conference. The chief executive of Kaiser Permanente for three years, he outlined some lessons in leading an organization with 39 hospitals and a health plan with more than 12 million members. He shed light on how healthcare leaders should strive toward making their organizations more inclusive.

In a discussion with Alexandra Drane, CEO and co-founder of ARCHANGELS, Adams talked about the racism he endured growing up in Georgia. Drane mentioned that as Adams was starting to advance in his professional career, a colleague refused to shake his hand.

Adams said it was a sacred truth in his home that, given what he and his family experienced, “You had an obligation to have a voice.” Turning away from injustice isn’t an option, he said.

Those life lessons drive him today as the leader of a large health system.

“We can’t separate how we lead from who we are,” Adams said. “I think that’s so important for me and others today.”

Leaders have an obligation to build organizations that allow everyone to thrive as themselves, and that entails allowing staff to bring their authentic selves to the office, he said.

Even with recognizing and respecting cultural differences, Adams said the goal is still “about being one Kaiser Permanente.” And that should be a goal beyond his organization.

“It does mean we move our organizations and our country and our society toward this humankind, this oneness,” he said.

As part of building a more inclusive organization, Adams said Kaiser Permanente has worked to make sure staff members recognize the guardrails. “We expect people to operate in those guardrails,” he said.

In striving to be more inclusive, Adams said Kaiser has emphasized, “This is who we are.”

At the same time, the organization has also made it clear that employees who can’t stay within the guardrails are going to have to work somewhere else.

Kaiser set up voluntary programs on recognizing and confronting bias, and more than 100,000 members have participated, Adams said. And he said 91% of those who went through the training said they engage with their colleagues differently.

The organization continues to strive to build a more diverse workforce, and leaders are held accountable for making gains. “Our workforce should be representative of the communities we serve,” Adams said.

Kaiser has worked to eliminate healthcare disparities for years, but Adams acknowledged the COVID-19 pandemic helped more people to see that outcomes aren’t equal. Black and Latino Americans have been more likely to die of COVID-19.

The health system has undertaken a closer look at outcomes through race, ethnicity and gender, Adams said. In the pandemic, Kaiser Permanente also decided that its care model should incorporate social determinants of health. The organization is on track to bring 2 million social assessments into clinical records, Adams said. “It’s a beautiful thing to see,” he said.

Toward the end of the session, Drane said that she spoke to some of Adams’ staff at Kaiser Permanente to get a sense of what he’s like when he gets mad. They responded that they know things are about to get serious when Adams says, “You’re going to have to love me through this.” And she asked Adams what makes him angry.

Smiling, Adams said, “Love me through the truth.”

He talked about the need to embrace multiculturalism as a nation, even a country that remains very divided, as evidenced by the elections last week.

“We need a new story,” Adams said. “We need a new narrative.”

Adams also said there should be much more robust conversations about the failings of the nation’s health system in the COVID-19 pandemic. “It did not work well. There are major fractures,” Adams said. At the same time, Adams said there’s not enough discussion about those shortcomings and the lack of funding toward public health.

Before concluding, Adams recalled some of the words of HLTH CEO Jonathan Weiner, who kicked off the conference by talking about the potential of the thousands of healthcare leaders to use their minds and influence to change the world. Adams said that healthcare leaders must recognize that responsibility.

“The people that are here have got to own that opportunity,” Adams said.