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It is easy to appreciate the benefits of having a diverse staff at a hospital. As trustees, we can observe how it improves the care of patients because of the deeper understanding of our community cultures. Indeed, we are seeing increased diversity among clinical and support staff. But at the leadership and board levels, diversity is lagging. The United States is demographically more diverse than ever before: Minorities make up 28 percent of the population, per the 2010 census, and that figure is projected to increase to more than 50 percent in the next 20 to 30 years. Yet today, only 14 percent of those serving on hospital boards are from minority groups.

Many hospital and system trustees have espoused the benefits of board diversity and tried to move their boards forward in this respect. The process can be difficult, perhaps because hospitals and health care systems recruit from familiar sources of leadership in the community, and many of those have yet to become diverse. But the need for diverse leadership at the board level has become urgent, and health care organizations should work to find ways to achieve it.

Powerful Partnerships

In July 2011, the National Call to Action to Eliminate Health Care Disparities was announced as a partnership of the Association of American Medical Colleges, the American College of Healthcare Executives, the American Hospital Association, the Catholic Health Association of the United States, and the National Association of Public Hospitals and Health Systems. In 2012, these organizations committed to a goal of achieving U.S. hospital board membership that reflects the racial and ethnic cultures in the communities served by 2020. To monitor progress and uphold accountability, the AHA Board of Trustees established its Equity of Care Committee.

For several years, the AHA has offered the Hospital Trustee Professionalism Program, led by the Institute for Diversity in Health Management and the Center for Healthcare Governance and assisted by many state hospital associations. Several hundred candidates have participated in this orientation focused on hospital boards and their practices. The program has demonstrated that there is no dearth of highly qualified leaders from minority communities, and a national registry of candidates is available on the Center's website. Our challenge now is to improve placements on hospital boards so that there can be broader evidence of what many trustees already have experienced: Candidates drawn from minority communities can be the most effective trustees.

What You Can Do

In addition to the nation's shifting demographics, the wider health insurance coverage to be initiated in 2014 under the Affordable Care Act likely will increase diversity in patient populations, given the disproportionate share of minorities among the currently uninsured. As hospital trustees, we can respond by:

  • reviewing the status of membership diversity on our boards;
  • using resources like the AHA's Minority Trustee Candidate Registry;
  • beginning recruitment efforts.

Doing this work will lead to one of the most important improvements trustees can make in building the strength of our hospitals and health care systems in the future: establishing boards and leadership that truly reflect the cultures of our communities.

Visit the Equity of Care website at www.equityofcare.org. For more information about the Minority Trustee Candidate Registry, go to Minority Trustee Candidate Registry.

Richard de Filippi (rdef@ariano.com) is chair of the AHA Equity of Care Committee, former chair of the AHA Board of Trustees and a trustee at Cambridge (Mass.) Health Alliance Foundation.