Diversity a Business Imperative for Health Organizations

February 21, 2017

Diversity in your organization isn't just the right thing to do, some experts say it can improve care plans and add practical value.

At the Healthcare Information and Management Systems Society's (HIMSS) annual conference, held this year in Orlando, Fla., two chief executives of health IT companies discussed why the glass ceiling matters, not just for individuals but also for the advancement of quality healthcare. The speakers offered advice and inspiration to women and members of other underrepresented groups about breaking through the glass ceiling.

Denise Hines, CEO of the EHealth Services Group, said that she founded her own company out of a pressing need for "flexibility and control" over her own work life when her sister fell seriously ill. Hines and her husband started taking care of that sister's three children, in addition to their own four. "I make no excuses," she said. "My career is important to me but my family is a priority."  

Hines, an African American, encouraged women who note insufficient diversity within their own organizations to be confident and courageous enough to speak up. She recommended that women in such a position speak with a manager who is close to their own level She said they should also recognize that that manager may simply be "unconscious" of the need to have different types of people working together. If that approach feels uncomfortable, she suggested the going to the HR department as the next stop, adding that some organizations have support phone numbers that employees can call to discuss such matters.

If a certain employee does alert management to the need for more gender or other sorts of diversity, Hines said the company could ask that person to help work on improving matters.  Women who don't speak out about diversity issues when they feel the need to do so often wind up leaving their employers, she said.

Ruben Amarasingham, a physician and the  CEO of Pieces Technologies, Inc., an analytics software firm, agrees with Hines on that point. "It's important to raise your voice and vote with your feet," he told listeners. He also advised audience members to recognize that "we all have implicit biases" of some sort.  "Try to deconstruct your own implicit biases for the sake of your company," he said.

Starting out with experience as a programmer, Dr. Amarasingham spent years during medical training at Brooklyn Hospital, a public safety net hospital and said he started to wonder, "How do we use analytics and technology for underserved populations?" He said that multiple perspectives from women and other groups not well represented in health IT are vital for many organizations. This is especially the case for those using machine intelligence, as these perspectives can produce better care plans for those in underserved communities. "You only get an equal perspective from women if they are your engineers, your scientists," he said.

Acknowledging the moral imperative behind diversity, he nonetheless stressed the practical value. He discussed the enormous number of "microdecisions" made as a company designs products and plans its support of customers. Having diverse perspectives makes for richer, more informed decisions about a matter that seem small, such as aspects of a user interface, but that still matters greatly to users. 

Today, 60 percent of his staff is female and the women in his company have salary parity with men in the field.   This is in contrast to health IT as a whole. In the field overall,  the problem of women earning less than men doing comparable jobs has worsened in recent years, according recent research cited by Carla Smith, the executive president of HIMSS North America, who also moderated the discussion.

Smith then offered women advice on negotiating both an initial salary and raises.

1.  Be knowledgeable to be powerful. There is a great deal of data on compensation on the HIMSS website.

2. Use social media to connect with others in your field and to learn more about compensation.

3. Develop strong negotiating skills. Take a class or use YouTube and other online resources. Also, practice negotiating. Role play with a colleague who will offer you solid constructive criticism, the kind that will leave you feeling empowered.

Amarasingham and Hines agreed that leaders of health organizations have an obligation to promote diversity in IT, because IT teams cannot fully support excellent patient care unless the teams themselves are representative of the communities being served.