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How Diversity in Health Care Can Improve Care and Control Costs

When your employees visit the doctor, chances are they encounter an array of skilled care team members representing different cultures, ethnicities and genders.

Diversity in health care isn’t a fad; decades of research and on-the-ground experience show that diversity improves outcomes, enhances patient satisfaction and reduces health disparities while simultaneously increasing access to care.

Making the Business Case for Diversity

Before discussing the health-specific rationale for diversity, let’s begin with something all employers understand: the value proposition.

Across industries, the link between cultural, ethnic and gender diversity and strong financial performance is well-established. Companies with the most ethnically diverse leadership are 33% more likely to outperform peers on profitability, while those with the highest gender diversity among their leadership teams are 21% more likely to have above-average profitability.

However, this goes beyond leadership alone. High-performing teams at any level tend to be cognitively and demographically diverse. Diverse groups are also better at overcoming obstacles: Diverse teams produce better outcomes and are more creative, diligent and innovative. They are, in short, better problem-solvers, an asset that strengthens any organization, regardless of sector.

Differing perspectives lead to better solutions, including social ones. In health care, social issues are especially acute. Research from the past decade shows that diversity in health care — among clinicians, staff and leadership alike — has a positive impact on the patient experience, reducing problematic discrepancies in care quality, broadening access to care and ultimately leading to better patient outcomes.

Overcoming Disparities

Equity matters. That’s true for many reasons, including that inequity in care is costly. A person of color or who is considered low income will typically face greater barriers to care and have higher rates of certain conditions than non-Latin white people and people with higher incomes. Such disparities account for roughly $93 billion in excess medical care costs and $42 billion in lost productivity per year, according to the Kaiser Family Foundation.

Greater diversity in health care could be an opportunity to reduce this inequality and improve access to care, especially in underserved areas, by introducing care teams that reflects their communities.

Reaching Whole-Patient Care

To provide truly patient-centric care, health care organizations have to understand the needs of their community and the patients they serve at a fundamental level. This aligns closely with value-based models, which consider the whole patient experience, not just what happens inside a facility’s walls.

In value-based models, provider organizations are responsible for patient outcomes, regardless of where care happens. Taking charge of those outcomes requires understanding patients — and patient populations — from cultural and social perspectives as well as from a medical one.

That’s why health coaches and community health workers play a bigger role than ever. They aren’t cookie-cutter medical professionals, and they often don’t have a medical background; what they do have is cultural competency, with roots in a community and relationships with the residents. They speak the same language, both figuratively and literally. They may go shopping with a patient to help them select healthier food, connect them with transportation services or just sit down over a cup of coffee to discuss the challenges of staying healthy.

This attitude has extended beyond care settings and made its way into training. For instance, the Association of American Medical Colleges holds that “diverse medical school classes do more than increase the diversity of the physician workforce; they also enhance the ability of the entire workforce to provide culturally and linguistically competent care for all people.”

Considering Other Kinds of Diversity

Diversity in health care isn’t limited to gender, ethnicity and other facets of identity. Health care teams also need diversity in their skill sets. Coaches, nutritionists, pharmacists, social workers, doctors, nurses, community health workers and more may all be part of the team. Each professional works at the top of their license. A physician doesn’t have the time or the skills to provide nutritional coaching to a patient with diabetes, but a nutritionist does.

Even better, a nutritionist from the same community as the patient, and who speaks the same language, can connect with the patient in ways an outsider never could.

All About Value

Our communities, including our workplaces, are becoming more diverse. It follows that the places we receive health care will, too. However, that shift is intentional. Diversity enhances the health of individuals and communities without sacrificing — and even, in many cases, while actively improving — the bottom line.

Value-based models and the move to diversity may have emerged from very different places, but, at least in health care, they are starting to converge. The impact of value-based care, coupled with the impact of diversity in health care, could power a movement that makes “patient-centered care” more than an aspiration.