Diversity of Diversity

Diversity of Diversity

When Valerie Myers went to South Africa in 1999 to conduct a research project, she faced an unsettling choice. As a United States citizen, she could live in a walled and segregated suburb, in a comfortable house with a private cook and windows overlooking the township she was studying. Or she could live with other students of color “who looked like me but were South African,” she recalls, and experience life as they did, in a dormitory room at the local YMCA with common dining and shared bathroom facilities. Myers chose the latter and spent the next two uncomfortable months coming to grips with the fact that, until that moment, she had not fully understood her privileged status as an American. Nor had she grasped the broad need for diversity training.

Diversity is not just a matter of gender and race, Myers says. All sorts of people experience some form of discrimination, among them older workers, women in leadership roles, and working parents. People differ ideologically and socially, they have different occupations and personalities, and some suffer unfairly due to disparities in health care.

According to the Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality, patients of color and patients with lower incomes tend to receive poorer quality health care. Myers, an assistant professor of health management and policy with a background in organizational psychology, believes the solution to the problem lies not just with individuals but with organizations, and in her research and teaching she is seeking to improve the ways that health care organizations manage diversity. “Doctors alone cannot stem the tide in disparities in care,” she says. “The entire organization must be ‘culturally competent.’”

At both the University of Michigan School of Public Health and the UM’s Ross Business School, where she is an adjunct assistant professor, Myers has launched courses on managing and maximizing diversity. Her students, who include clinicians, physicians, health educators, and health and business management students, study the dimensions of diversity (such as ability, disability, sexual orientation, and political ideology) as well as the ways that discrimination has been institutionalized. The goal of the course, she says, is “to promote organizational culture changes that truly value diversity. That begins with informed leaders—which is what we expect our graduates to become.”

Myers requires each student in the course to undergo an “immersion experience” during which he or she enters an unfamiliar context. A Baptist might visit a mosque, for example, or a male student might attend an all-female event. Myers has found that many students experience “fairly profound awakenings about themselves” and their biases.

In a conscious effort to model the effective management of diversity and democracy in groups, Myers has students evaluate the course weekly, “so we can recalibrate,” and she is working with HMP colleague Rich Lichtenstein to research the class itself. Ultimately, she wants to train a new generation of physicians, nurses, and allied health professionals to “work effectively on mixed teams, to value lower-status workers, and to speak up when discrimination occurs.”

Outside class, Myers is collaborating with a physician in the UM Medical School and researchers in organizational psychology to study the relationship between diversity and quality of care. Additionally, in a project funded by the National Center for Healthcare Leadership, she is working with a colleague at Penn State to examine best diversity practices in health care organizations.

Because of the nation’s rapidly changing demographics and growing diversity, Myers sees diversity as a quality issue in several ways. Given the changing work force, she says, it is imperative that organizations do a better job of maximizing the talents of all people. In health care, that can lead to a reduction in errors, an improvement of overall quality, and the elimination of health disparities. She is currently building a research program that looks at the relationship between managing diversity in health care and performance indicators, broadly defined, such as finance, quality of care, and turnover.

Photo by Peter Smith

Send correspondence about this or any Findings article to the editor at sph.findings@umich.edu. You will be contacted if your letter is considered for publication.