Alameda Health System Vice President and CTO Christine Yang, Luminis Health Chief Digital and Information Officer Saad Chaudhry, and UChicago Medicine Executive Director of Digital Applications and Information Solutions Barbara Franta discuss their organization's DEI initiatives.

May 03 2023

Healthcare IT Leaders on Diversity, Equity and Inclusion in the Workforce

These leaders share their strategies, successes and ambitions for building diversity, equity and inclusion in their organizations and across the industry.

Saad Chaudhry, now the chief digital and information officer at Annapolis, Md.-based Luminis Health, has faced challenges on his healthcare IT career journey.  

When he applied for his first official job in the sector — after years of education and experience working on an IBM 286 computer in his dad’s psychiatry clinic in exchange for video game time — he encountered employment barriers as an international student. His first employer ended up revoking its initial offer after learning of his visa sponsorship requirement.

Andrea Daugherty, who had worked as the interim CIO and director of enterprise IT security and resiliency at Dell Medical School at the University of Texas at Austin prior to publication of this article, had her own obstacles as a young, Black woman in IT. A supervisor once told her she wasn’t suitable for a high-profile project, and she pushed back: “It’s like, ‘Don’t tell me I don’t have a seat at the table. I deserve to be here just as much as you, if not more, because of who I am as a person and what I can bring to the table.’”

For many healthcare organizations, the diversity found in the communities they serve isn’t always reflected in their own workforce.

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Although progress is happening on the clinical side, the numbers are still stark: Nearly 64 percent of active physicians are white, compared with only 6 percent who are Black or African American, according to updated findings from the Association of American Medical Colleges.

Health systems across the country are working to reduce inequities within their organizations, supported by training in diversity, equity and inclusion, with initiatives targeting clinical and nonclinical departments. Chaudhry and Daugherty are among a growing number of healthcare IT leaders heading efforts to ensure that diversity is at the forefront of their departments.

HealthTech discussed DEI in healthcare IT with Chaudhry and Daugherty as well as Barbara Franta, executive director of digital applications and information solutions at UChicago Medicine, and Christine Yang, vice president and CTO at Alameda Health System in Oakland, Calif.

WATCH: How collecting the right data can improve health equity.

HEALTHTECH: How have conversations about DEI evolved at your organization through the years?

CHAUDHRY: We don’t call it DEI. We call it JEDI — justice, equity, diversity and inclusion — and it’s led by our chief diversity officer and our CEO through a council that has representatives from a cross-section of the organization. As the CIO, I sit on it. How many CIOs can say they’re part of a JEDI council? How cool is that?

That “justice before all” part is incredibly important. We don’t believe that you can have equality without justice. Within JEDI, we slice diversity into several aspects through business resource groups. I am the executive sponsor for the Generation Now BRG, aimed at millennials and Gen Z.

There’s also the provision of care to our communities. At the peak of the COVID-19 pandemic, once vaccines were coming out, we partnered with local government entities to serve as a hub for testing and vaccinations. We are in a region of the country where there are organizations with well-known and deep baggage of medical legacy that might not be terribly trusted by local communities. Our JEDI framework allowed us to really look at this from another angle and to ask ourselves, what does this look like for the individual communities? We partnered with local churches — pillars that the community did trust — as we rolled out the vaccines.

DAUGHERTY: Every leadership position that I’ve held throughout my professional career has either been created for me or I’ve been the first African American woman to hold that position. That’s something worth celebrating, but it also comes with a lot of responsibility to those who may follow. I’ve carried that very sentiment forward into my role.

I think we as an organization still have some room for growth. Our DEI efforts have partly been affected by the workforce shift. We’ve been subjected to just as much attrition as the next institution, and when you think about Austin, Texas, as a city and its diversity, or lack thereof, that does make it hard.

The political climate here in Texas has an impact as well. I have several vacancies on my team, and I’ve started hiring people remotely. I think it would be helpful for us to have more allyship across the C-suite team as well as the broader university.

Saad Chaudhry
We don’t call it DEI. We call it JEDI — justice, equity, diversity and inclusion ... As the CIO, I sit on it. How many CIOs can say they’re part of a JEDI council? How cool is that?”

Saad Chaudhry Chief Digital and Information Officer, Luminis Health

FRANTA: In 2019, we made DEI part of our annual operating plan, which formed the goals and objectives that we were trying to hit. So, we all have this front of mind. It’s something that we also look at as a leadership team as we are going through our metrics.

Some of the quality metrics that we look at involve how we are treating our population of patients. Do we need to look at the difference in how we are treating patients who are white versus nonwhite? And if there is a difference in those metrics, we need to drill down into the “why” so we can make corrections.

YANG: We have a health equity, diversity and inclusion committee that is front and center in Alameda Health System’s overall mission. The HEDI committee, with representation from departments throughout the company, has five focus areas: workforce diversity, workforce development, leadership development, equity of care and integrated community partnership. It is all about bringing that to the employees, the community. Our CEO has weekly desktop chats. It really runs down through the roots.

EXPLORE: Why it's important to keep equity at the forefront in telehealth.

HEALTHTECH: Can you share specific diversity-related initiatives within your organization?

CHAUDHRY: Our two acute care hospitals are in different counties. One of them happens to be in a region where there are huge disparities in women’s and children’s care. We found that 8 out of 10 women have to leave that county to give birth because there’s a desert of that specialty in the region. And these are diverse populations.

If you’re only looking through the revenue lens, you may say, well, it might be better to invest in other specialties in that region. But you know what our leadership said? We said, we’re there to serve the community. If we want to look at the community as our mirror, we must do something with that reflection. We are now on a path to invest hundreds of millions in the next couple of years to build an entire women and children’s wing next to that hospital to serve that community.

DAUGHERTY: I’ve made it a priority to encourage my leaders to think outside the box when recruiting staff, and through the lens of creating a vibrant and inclusive culture. I think the more diverse your team is, the more value it adds overall. I think my leadership team is a really good representation of what I want the entire department to be.

We’re also open to people who may be interested in healthcare IT but have nontraditional backgrounds. The tech part can be taught, so if you can find a person who’s a good cultural fit, I think that goes a long way.

My team partnered with Dr. Tera Howard, assistant professor of women’s health, to build and launch a mentorship portal that connects underrepresented minority medical students with mentors. This gives students an opportunity to build relationships with faculty who can relate to them in a profession where minorities are historically underrepresented. It’s through these types of efforts that we are able have hard conversations that yield impactful results.

Andrea Daugherty
I’ve made it a priority to encourage my leaders to think outside the box when recruiting staff ... I think the more diverse your team is, the more value it adds overall.”

Andrea Daugherty Former Interim CIO and Director of Enterprise IT Security and Resiliency, Dell Medical School, University of Texas at Austin

FRANTA: University of Chicago Medicine is part of a collaborative with the South Side Healthy Community Organization. At its core, this is a population health initiative based on public health needs. It’s marrying the needs of the most underserved ZIP codes in Chicago to ensure the health and well-being of the people in those communities. So, it’s not just hospitals and doctors, it’s also creating the social safety net for the group.

YANG: One very exciting initiative is our new equity assessment tool. We developed this tool to help us incorporate the HEDI lens into our decision-making. It can be new policies, a vendor selection process, budgetary decisions, reinventing an existing process. It’s a series of questions about equity to make sure we come up with the right decisions aligned with our values.

For example, using HEDI, we wanted to improve our interpreter service offerings. Forty-six percent of households in Alameda County speak a non-English language at home, and a large population of Guatemalans in Alameda County speak Mam. We learned that we used interpreter services for 90 languages in 2021. So, we selected vendors that can offer more than 300 languages, including Mam interpreters.

HEALTHTECH: Do you think your organization reflects the diversity of the community it serves, or is that a goal?

CHAUDHRY: We are in Annapolis, which historically hasn’t been the most diverse part of Maryland. That is changing swiftly, and I truly believe that our communities have embraced that. Having said that, Luminis Health became a majority-minority organization in 2022. That is a huge milestone for an organization of 10,000 people.

DAUGHERTY: The organization has made a concerted effort to try to promote diversity not just on the provider side but also throughout staff and faculty positions. But I do think that one area of opportunity for us is to continue to invest and try to recruit more professionals of color, because I do not feel that our leadership and our care teams are as diverse as they could be and are not yet as representative of the community that we serve. There are cultural elements that physicians of color are more sensitive to compared with their nonethnic counterparts, and that impacts patient outcomes.

If the pandemic taught us anything, it’s that we as a people are better together. Being a new medical school at a top-tier research university, Dell Medical School is uniquely positioned to cultivate how we recruit and train physicians who are prepared to tackle systemic challenges in healthcare. My hope is that the university will continue to invest in diversity and inclusion as we grow.

Barbara Franta
We took strides to try to make the places that we could control as inclusive as possible. It’s always a work in progress.”

Barbara Franta Executive Director of Digital Applications and Information Solutions, UChicago Medicine

FRANTA: I think we do, and it’s a goal. It’s both. Just before the pandemic hit, we looked at all of the departments within the organization, and our IT division was in the top 5 percent of diverse divisions, which was a huge plus for us. But we also knew that we had a lot of work to do for everybody to feel like they were included in the conversations and not just representative of a check box. We took strides to try to make the places that we could control as inclusive as possible. It’s always a work in progress.

YANG: Absolutely, I think our organization reflects the diversity of the community we serve. We are the fourth-largest employer in Alameda County, and we’re a safety-net health system. We serve everyone in Alameda County, especially underserved communities. Our CEO, James Jackson, is committed to growing the workforce to reflect the diversity of the population we serve. I can see the value every day. It doesn’t matter if the meeting is at the executive level or the department level; that value is carried through the work we do, our investment decisions, everything. The message is very clear.

Photography by Cody Pickens (Christine Yang); Photography by Ryan Donnell (Saad Chaudhry); Photography by Stephen Hill (Barbara Franta)

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