Planting Seeds of Change – A Case Study

Kinneil Coltman, PhD
VP & Chief Diversity Officer,
Atrium Health

Who we are?

Atrium Health (formerly Carolinas HealthCare System) is one of the nation’s leading healthcare organizations, connecting patients with on-demand care, world-class specialists and the region’s largest primary care network. A recognized leader in healthcare delivery, quality and innovation, our foundation rests on providing clinically excellent and compassionate care. We have been serving our community since 1940, when we opened our doors as Charlotte Memorial Hospital.

In 2018, we proudly announced that Carolinas HealthCare System is Atrium Health. And while our name has changed, our focus remains the same on delivering the highest quality patient care, supporting medical research and education and joining with partners outside our walls to keep our community healthy.

Why we care.

Atrium Health’s mission to improve health, elevate hope and advance healing – for all, truly means every patient, teammate and community we reach. Diversity, inclusion and equity are a central part of our business practice. Fifty hospitals and more than 900 care locations that make up our healthcare system consciously integrate these principles into everyday operations.

A significant factor in the ability to provide culturally competent care is having a workforce whose demographic composition closely matches the patients and areas we serve. Atrium Health is dedicated to fostering a work environment where people from diverse backgrounds are adequately represented at all levels and work comfortably together – recognizing that talent is enhanced by the diversity teammates bring to the workplace. Our culture of inclusion encourages understanding, respect and appreciation of the unique attributes specific to each patient, teammate and community.

Our strategy.

Atrium Health’s philosophy regarding diversity, inclusion and equity, is guided by our Diversity Agenda – which supports the values, ideals and mission of the organization. The guiding principles within, enhance our position in the industry and support our strategic priorities – to be the most connected and convenient healthcare system, excel at high-value, person-centered care delivery, and increase the affordability of our services.

What we did.

In 2016, a cross-functional committee, led by the Office of Diversity & Inclusion (D&I), designed the curriculum and parameters of the Atrium Health Diversity Certificate Program (DCP), which serves to support the Diversity Agenda and advance related goals.

The six-week blended learning program imparts graduates with the context, tools and strategies needed to achieve a higher level of cultural competence – at work and home. Furthermore, by enhancing teammates’ skill sets, the DCP promotes culturally and linguistically competent care delivery.

The comprehensive course encompasses a variety of teaching methods including instructor-led classes, experiential activities, peer mentorship and self-guided pursuits – culminating in a capstone presentation. The program is open for application to all teammates at Atrium Health who are interested in exploring diversity related concepts, systems and leadership strategies – while becoming more effective diversity champions.

The Diversity Certificate Program continues to boast a strong completion rate and a sustained record of high quality programming. Most of the roughly 360 graduates to date, have gone on to become force multipliers that extend the reach and impact of the Office of Diversity and Inclusion.

The popularity of the program, represents the critical mass needed to infuse cultural sensitivity, understanding, affirmation and social responsibility throughout the organization. Over the last nine cohorts, the number of applicants reached a peak of more than 300 applicants for one term. With an intentionally small class size, this left many wanting and seeking other ways to engage with D&I.

What changed?

The DCP’s reputation and growing number of graduates enhanced the visibility of the robust platform of D&I education available. Those who are not accepted are encouraged to apply again and given personalized application feedback upon request. Additionally, the application status notification now directs teammates to a smorgasbord of D&I online mini-courses, system resources groups, diversity councils and upcoming opportunities.

Furthermore, DCP graduates also cite experiencing a form of personal growth – often referred to as cathartic. It is not uncommon for cohorts to shed tears along their journey – tears of joy, sadness and relief, as the classroom fosters an atmosphere where participants feel safe and allow themselves to be vulnerable. Life-long friendships are formed, professional connections are made and an affirming micro-culture is formed – which in turn spreads across the organization. Many graduates also go on to become life-long learners, advocates and change agents for this work.

As a result, teammates demonstrate behaviors that elevate performance, empathy and the ability to meet people where they are – which in turn transforms our patient experience, quality outcomes, and workplace culture.

One of the strategies we used in the program was to invite individuals throughout the organization, who frequently engage with D&I, to facilitate several of the classroom sessions on a voluntary basis. This tactic was so effective that it inspired the creation of our Diversity Faculty – a rotating pool of teammates who volunteer their time and talents to facilitate diversity-related education for work areas across Atrium Health.

Atrium Health won both gold and silver level Brandon Hall Awards for the DCP in 2017 – Best Inclusion & Diversity Strategy and Best Certification Program, respectively. The Brandon Hall Excellence Awards Program recognizes organizations, who have successfully deployed programs, strategies, modalities, processes, systems and tools that have achieved measurable results.

Lessons learned along the way.

Partnerships need a push.

Over the first few cohorts, it became evident that participants needed a greater push to connect with their diversity partners (aka peer mentors), thus capstone presentations are now done collaboratively.

Too much of a good thing, can be bad.

At one point, the DCP got so popular that the massive number of applications became increasingly unmanageable with each consecutive cohort. In response, we shortened the application window and began directing teammates to alternate D&I opportunities.

Lessons are best learned lean.

We determined that a deeper dive into fewer topics, was more effective and impactful than an overview of many. After the initial launch, we streamlined the overall program content to focus on only the most impactful and current topics.

Week five of the program focuses on inclusive leadership. Originally, we allowed individual contributors to attend upon request. However, we found that leaders are more receptive to leadership teachings when in the company of other leaders.

Our advice.

Get creative in how you expand the reach of your diversity efforts. Most organizations have a limited number of fulltime employees dedicated to diversity-related work. Find ways to increase your impact, without increasing your workload – such as cascading education and initiatives through employee resource groups and diversity councils.

Learn to leverage the passion of people in other areas of your organization as force multipliers to enhance your company’s diversity maturity. Not only will this effort increase your capacity, it also offers more flexibility in scheduling independent team education, and it gives faculty members opportunities to demonstrate their talents in areas that may otherwise remain hidden.

In essence, do not be afraid to think outside the box to improve health, elevate hope and advance healing – for all. We sure do.