Executive Voices: La'Wana Harris, Global Diversity and Inclusion Consultant

Samara Rosenfeld
JULY 10, 2019
La'Wana HarrisThe lack of diversity in healthcare can affect patient care. That’s why it is necessary for healthcare providers to recognize their diversity and inclusion weaknesses to overcome these disparities. Individuals in marginalized populations have more trust in their pastors or older family members than their physicians. It’s up to providers to use technology — which could help or hurt this issue — data and partnerships to ensure these populations receive the care they need.
 
La’Wana Harris is a global diversity and inclusion consultant and the author of several diversity books and workbooks. She also serves as a member on the board of directors for the Healthcare Businesswomen’s Association (HBA), a Strategic Alliance Partner of Inside Digital Health™. Harris is the president and founder of La'Wana Harris Inc. and works to improve diversity and inclusion in the workplace.
 
A graduate of Greensboro College, Harris spent nearly 14 years in multiple roles at Sanofi. Most recently, she served as director of global leadership development. Harris is a certified personal coach and an associate certified coach.
 
I spoke with Harris about how health system executives and their organizations can address diversity and inclusion, how she works with healthcare organizations to build a more inclusive framework and how she promotes diversity inclusion as a member of the board of directors for HBA.
 
Editor’s note: This interview has been lightly edited for length, clarity and style.
 

Samara Rosenfeld: What are some common weaknesses you’ve seen in healthcare settings when it comes to diversity and inclusion?

La’Wana Harris: The rate of change has obviously been a challenge. With the demographic shift we are seeing, we’re finding that physicians have great training on treating patients relative to their disease and physical needs. But when it comes to being able to treat the whole patient, with diversity and inclusion, some of the issues arise around disparities in healthcare, social determinants, access to care and how to best address that in an environment of constant change.
 

S.R.: How do you address these healthcare issues?

La’Wana Harris: For one, build the awareness around some of the technological advances that are out there. In fact, when you think about artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning, what do they mean to the healthcare sector? When it comes to diversity and inclusion, there’s been some alarm because there is a high level of bias that has also shown itself in AI. So we are working with physicians, practices and administrators to build awareness. We ask that when they look at any platform that uses AI across any of their businesses, offices and practices, to look at how the vendor or platform addresses bias. Because the bias, as it shows up in AI, can affect someone’s health.
 

S.R.: Healthcare leaders are concerned with getting results. How do diversity and inclusion help leaders get the results they want?

La’Wana Harris: The result is to have healthy people and to improve lives. There’s no way to do that without taking into account human diversity. The same way medicine is going with technology toward individualized medicine, we’re looking at how therapies can be applied to very specific targeted populations more and more. Your overall patient care has to follow that same trend. That is one area where technology is leading the way.
 
When you talk about results in any practice, you want to have results across all of your patients. Yet when we look at the data, we see significant healthcare disparities in traditionally marginalized populations, such as incidences of diabetes in Hispanic or African-American populations. When we see those disparities and you talk about being result-oriented, it brings to the floor how diversity and understanding impact medicine, and those results become of utmost importance.
 

S.R.: What happens when healthcare leaders overlook diversity and inclusion?

La’Wana Harris: In one of my previous roles, we took a look at that in an organization. We looked at a link to care, which means how we engage patients in the general population who are not yet in the healthcare system. Especially when you think about all the technologies that are out there today, you would think we had a better handle on bringing folks into the system who may not be there yet but still suffer from chronic disease.
 
We were specifically looking at diabetes and engaged with different populations and communities. We were not expecting that everyone would proactively engage with the healthcare system, especially in underrepresented populations.
 
We went out and focused on rural health in the Carolinas, on African-American communities of faith. We went out to churches and engaged with health leaders. Within the Hispanic populations, we engaged the madrinas, who are some of the older women within that population. We found that there was a level of trust with those individuals — such as African Americans with their pastor — even more so than their physician. And that was the same with some of the Hispanic population and their madrinas.
 
By leveraging partnerships with associations — those that are targeting the historically marginalized populations —and leveraging technology within various markets, we looked at outcomes and how we can push forward and advocate for community health workers, so they can be a bridge for those patients who may not be in the formal system but still need care based on where they are.
 
It’s not just technology. It’s not just going into the community or those associations and working with those marginalized populations. In that program, we brought all of those components together, and the outcomes were very good across all demographics.
 

S.R.: What are other ways you’re working with healthcare organizations to build a more inclusive framework?

La’Wana Harris: One of the pieces that I’ve seen really good results with is looking at the employees themselves. There have been a number of advances around wearables within organizations. Some organizations are looking at how to create an inclusive environment for women. Some are looking at family leave for men, not only women, and at the different ways of having flexibility in work environments.
 
When you hear about diversity and inclusion in the workplace and healthcare, you think of more traditional pieces. What we’re finding is that we should layer on how to simply create an inclusive environment that helps expand the thinking of how we bring technology, along with the human elements of human resources, to make sure every person has what they need to succeed as their authentic self.
 

S.R.: How do you do that?

La’Wana Harris: Some people are using programming around employee wellness. For example, RedBrick Health has an optional program where employees can use wearables to log their activity and their different impacts for well-being and eating habits. And they take journeys. Some organizations have gyms and places to workout inside and are promoting health. Some are engaging with technology through wearables and some of them have built employee recognition programs around that.
 
It starts with coming into an organization to see where the gaps are. There’s no blanket approach. So in working with organizations, I start with a needs analysis to see where the gaps are and their area of opportunity. For those that have found they need to boost employee engagement, morale or work and family balance, we may go in that direction. Other organizations might have leadership issues, with leadership not respecting or being aware of diverse needs.
 

S.R.: What is the Commit self-assessment and how does it help determine strengths and weaknesses around diversity and inclusion?

La’Wana Harris: The Commit self-assessment is a piece of the inclusion coaching process. It is a self-perception inventory. It’s all about individuals going within themselves to see where they stand relative to certain aspects of diversity and inclusion.
 
The first consideration is, “commit to courageous action.” Say you’re in a meeting and a female raises her hand and makes a suggestion and is ignored. Later in that meeting, a male makes the same suggestion and now it’s celebrated as a brilliant idea. What does it mean to act courageously in that environment? What does it mean for the leader? What does it mean for the leader that it happened to? What does it mean for some of the other colleagues?
 
The Commit self-assessment gives you prompts for you to internally assess where you have strengths and opportunities around certain inclusive behaviors. Based on that, you give examples of how you want to move forward and it encourages you to think about ways based on your specific environment of how you may be able to improve upon opportunities and further leverage your strengths.
 

S.R.: As a member of the board of directors for HBA, how have you been able to promote diversity inclusion?

La’Wana Harris: The very essence of HBA is to promote workplaces that work for women. I had an opportunity to facilitate and moderate a session for executive women. What we found was that many times, executive women are called upon to pour out, share, mentor and give of themselves to help develop others. However, there’s not a lot of energy pouring into their development.
 
So HBA built an executive leadership series specifically for executive women.
 
Recently, we had a chance to share insights on how to engage women better within their respective organizations and ways to open up the diversity and inclusion dialogue.
 
Finally, we have large organizations in the healthcare sector that have come alongside HBA as trusted partners. We help them with their internal efforts to increase women in different leadership positions and build an inclusive culture where women can thrive.
 
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