Make diversity a part of daily operations

Orientation, mentors make difference

At SSM Rehab in St. Louis, diversity has become part of the institutional culture. Staff have successfully built diversity into its ongoing operations rather than instituting one program that would meet federal and industry guidelines, says Kurt Delabar, director of human resources.

SSM Health Care (SSMHC), the not-for-profit health system of which SSM Rehab is a part, last year became the first health care organization in the country to be named a Malcolm Baldrige National Quality Award winner. Successfully managing diversity among patients and employees is one of the elements involved in winning the award.

"Diversity is not a program," Delabar says. "It’s part of what we do every day. Whether it’s the diversity of focusing on marginalized patients or whether it’s activities geared toward attracting and retaining employees with diverse backgrounds, it’s just part of what we do. If it’s part of what you do every day, that’s how you will be successful."

One example of how SSM Rehab has incorporated diversity into its regular operations is its orientation program that gives new hires a comprehensive understanding of the organization. Instead of a quick, one-day event, the employees attend five days of orientation during their first month. Each new employee, from maintenance staff to office workers, from therapists to physicians, gets hands-on training from all disciplines.

Gina Garippo, communications manager, says the orientation helps staff members understand what patients are going through, how they feel, and what they encounter when working through recovery at the facility.

Employees try on special clothing that allows them to feel what it is like to be paralyzed on one side of their body or to try getting dressed after an amputation. They practice transferring from wheelchairs and tying shoes without the use of their hands, she explains. "It really raises the sensitivity of our entire work force to who we’re trying to treat. I hadn’t thought in terms of what it might feel like to have lost a limb or to experience a stroke and not be able to use one side of my body. If the whole staff have been trained to have a heightened understanding, there’s that sensitivity level that is different," Garippo adds.

Cultural diversity also is a topic in the staff’s annual training, where issues such as differing customs are addressed. Staff members learn to be sensitive to Middle Eastern patients who may not embrace modern Western medicine and to Asian patients who may feel direct eye contact is a sign of disrespect, Delabar explains. Employees also have quick access to reference books on diversity issues at nurses’ stations throughout the facility, he says.

SSM Rehab has begun a nurse recruitment program in the Philippines, which serves to alleviate the nursing shortage and bring diversity to the work force. Research has shown that some countries, including the Philippines, have an abundance of registered nurses who undergo training similar to what is offered in the United States, Delabar says.

SSM Rehab now has eight Filipino nurses on staff. "Some of these nurses have left their families to come halfway around the world, and our staff have embraced them," he says. "It has been interesting to work on a daily basis with people from another culture." SSM staff members have helped the nurses find housing and become more comfortable with their jobs and the community.

"One nurse even spent the holidays with one of our senior-level managers, who wanted him to feel at home during the holidays without family," says Garippo.

SSM Rehab also participates in a diversity mentor program that identifies employees — predominantly minorities — as future leaders. They are paired with a mentor from senior leadership who meets with them regularly for a year to teach them about such areas as budgeting and staffing that they would need to know in order to become a manager. "They work to develop those individuals professionally; and in a lot of cases, they are also developing personal relationships," Delabar says.

"One of the things that is built into our strategic plan is a goal to increase the numbers of minorities and women in professional and management positions. This initiative helps move toward that goal," he adds. Other activities include specific recruiting techniques to hire minorities and quarterly diversity forums for all employees. "It has been the mission of SSM for over 100 years to focus on the marginalized. We constantly find new ways to further that mission."