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Tackling Healthcare Disparities Begins in the C-Suite

Analysis  |  By Jasmyne Ray  
   February 09, 2022

Dr. Margaret Larkins-Pettigrew of Allegheny shares her expertise as a Chief Clinical Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion Officer.

While the pandemic has aggravated many issues in the healthcare industry, disparities driven by lack of diversity, equity, and inclusivity have been the most persistent.

In a report on the importance of diversity in the healthcare workforce published in 2021, Fatima Cody Stanford, MD, MPH, FAAP, FACP, FTOS, expressed the experiences of racial and ethnic minorities when pursuing their medical degrees compared to those from majority groups. In a survey of about 3,500 healthcare professionals, the findings showed that minorities and women were less likely to rank their organization as "culturally competent."

Margaret Larkins-Pettigrew, MD, Med, MPPM, is the senior vice president and Chief Clinical Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion Officer for Allegheny Health Network, a nonprofit health system headquartered in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.

In a recent interview with HealthLeaders, Larkins-Pettigrew said that as the leaders of their respective organizations, C-suite executives must be the "diversity champions" of their institution.

"They have to really want to acknowledge and embrace the historical events that have brought us to this place where we are recognizing that we have such disparate care and medical disparities," Larkins-Pettigrew said.

She explained that healthcare is not only what patients receive at the hospital, but the way healthcare professionals take care of people—how they ensure they are providing services patients may need, and how they make the best decisions for each patient.

"[Healthcare is] how we treat people who come to our system and who rely on us as experts, and what services we offer them to give the comprehensive care that allows us to decrease the disparity in the health gap that we see across the world," Larkins-Pettigrew said.

The first step for many organizations seeking to improve their DEI is to hire someone at the executive level who can recognize, acknowledge, and engage the necessary methods or initiatives to begin improving.

"C-suite leaders understand that we, ourselves, are biased. We need to make sure that we understand what it will take to make sure that we are checking our biases," Larkins-Pettigrew said. "That the trickle-down effect in our decision-making are those not based on biases, but based on scientific literature, is evidence-based, and that we're giving everybody the same [quality of care]."

Additionally, organizations must be mindful of the trust patients give their hospitals, healthcare facilities, and healthcare workers, and strive to keep it.

"Patients and healthcare workers should be able to show up as their authentic selves, with workers being mindful to meet the patient where they are in the moment regarding their care to continue that trust," Larkins-Pettigrew said.

In hiring, she added, the importance isn't as much in recruiting diverse individuals as it is retaining them.

"Retaining them means that they have to feel that they belong, that they're included, and that they are part of that big picture." Larkins-Pettigrew explained. "That their expertise matters."

From a socioeconomic perspective, the need for DEI increases when it comes to healthcare organizations and systems serving patients in rural communities. The current rural healthcare crisis is a result of several factors including the closing of numerous rural hospitals and healthcare facilities, staffing shortages, and the lack of expert or specialist care.

"[Healthcare systems] have to be connected to all of the folks we need to take care of. That means we need to understand what the needs are of people who live in rural communities," Larkins-Pettigrew said. "We need to pay attention to educate more primary care physicians who will be dedicated to these rural areas."

“C-suite leaders understand that we, ourselves, are biased. We need to make sure that we understand what it will take to make sure that we are checking our biases.”


C-suite executives must be the main advocates for diversity, equity, and inclusion in their organizations.

Healthcare workers and facilities must be mindful of the trust their patients have in them to provide the care they need.

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