How DEI helps save lives at Hackensack Meridian Health

Recently honored by Diversity Inc. as top health care system in U.S. for DEI

There are so many reasons companies should embrace diversity, equity & inclusive initiatives — starting with the fact that it is just the right thing to do.

Studies have shown it improves culture, hiring and retention — and the bottom line.

At Hackensack Meridian Health, embracing DEI does something even more important: It saves lives.

Bob Garrett. (File photos)

CEO Bob Garrett said the diversity of the HMH staff has direct impact.

“We work in one of the most diverse states in the nation; it’s important that our workforce reflects the communities that we serve,” he said. “And having that diverse workforce makes people in all of the communities we serve feel more comfortable. There’s no doubt that greater outcomes can be achieved by that.”

HMH Chief Diversity Officer Avonia Richardson-Miller said the stats back that up.

“In the area of maternal health, there is research that shows that, when it’s concurrent between the race of the baby and the race of the physician, the chance of the baby surviving and living increases substantially,” she said.

“It’s not the concurrence of phrase between the mother and the physician. It is the concurrence between the baby and the physician that you see more quality positive outcomes and lower death rates for Black babies.”

Avonia Richardson-Miller.

For all these reasons and more, HMH recently was selected by Diversity Inc. as the No. 1 health care network in the country for DEI efforts in the workplace.

For Garrett, the thrill of the award is even greater, considering the fact the health system was not ranked on the list just three years ago. It shows the effort it has made has been genuine and significant.

“That’s a credit to Avonia and her team,” he said. “I think the organization has really embraced this, and our culture has absolutely embraced it. It’s made a lot of positive changes in how we care for our patients and interact with our communities.”

ROI-NJ recently talked with Garrett and Richardson-Miller about the honor and the system’s DEI efforts. Here is more of the conversation, edited for space and clarity.

ROI-NJ: HMH went from unranked to No. 11 to No. 4 to No. 1 — how does that happen?

Bob Garrett: Over the last few years, we really focused on tying this back to our mission to transform health care. I don’t believe we can do that unless we have a diverse workforce.

Avonia Richardson-Miller: I think it’s a testament that really proves diversity, equity & inclusion is woven through the fabric of our organization. This is not something that you can just say, you have to act on it.

Diversity Inc. is considered a gold standard. When you apply, it’s not just about writing your narrative, you really have to prove and submit your data to back up what you’re saying that you’ve done. It’s a very tough competition — you have some of the best health care systems and businesses competing — so, to rise to this rank among the competition is just phenomenal.

It shows that many people and leaders across our organization are vested in advancing these initiatives.

ROI: Talk about some of the things you are doing.

BG: Avonia and I chair an executive council on diversity, equity & inclusion. We see reports and we hear directly about the activities we’re undertaking. We recently embarked on a networkwide training program on unconscious bias — 36,000 team members are being trained. We’re about 75% complete. By the summer, we hope to be at 100%. That was a major undertaking that we felt was worth undertaking.

ARM: Our Day of Understanding, which came after the tragic murder of George Floyd, has been a very impactful initiative. Bob issued a statement, but it didn’t end there.

The statement included a commitment from leadership, and that started with first connecting with our team members and hearing directly from — what we called our Day of Understanding — but it ended up morphing into regular days of understanding.

These are times that we set aside in the organization to be comfortable with the uncomfortable. We have these very difficult conversations about what’s going on about race and social injustices and other things that our team members and leaders are experiencing.

These are very difficult conversations that are led and facilitated by our senior leaders. So, they are connecting directly with our team members from across the continuum of the organization all the way to frontline workers to hear and have these very difficult conversations with them.

At the end of those sessions, the conversation pivots for the team members to give feedback to our leaders — actions they would like to see our organization take. Those discussions go into the decision-making process.

ROI: Talk about the impact of all of this.

BG: I think people are more comfortable working in a place like Hackensack Meridian because they know we embrace those philosophies and those principles around diversity, equity & inclusion. Our human resources department hears it all the time.

That has made it easier for people of the communities that we serve to want to work here and feel comfortable working here and feeling engaged, feeling included. And I think it really does make a difference. People feel like they can be heard and embraced here — and that cultural diversity is something that’s celebrated.

And it goes beyond just the workforce.

ROI: How do you mean?

BG: DEI is now a big part of our suppliers and vendors. We have increased our diversity spend significantly, from $55.8 million to $77.6 million. We have leaders on our board, like John Harmon, the CEO of the African American Chamber of Commerce, who recently brought in diverse-owned businesses through a diversity supplier event that attracted 11 new companies.

And one of the companies that we embraced actually had a cancer drug that was in very short supply. We literally saved lives as a result of them coming in, because we couldn’t get this pharmaceutical from other companies.

ROI: Saving lives. It doesn’t get more important than that. Avonia, we’ll give you the final word.

ARM: Quality care is culturally competent care. In order to best serve the communities we serve, we need to know how to engage and respond to our patients in a culturally responsive way.  That’s what our DEI initiatives are doing here.