Data-Driven DEI™ Case Study: Virtua Health
Virtua is a non-profit healthcare system in southern New Jersey that operates a network of hospitals, surgery centers, physician practices, and more. Founded in 1885, Virtua began as the West Jersey Health System operating out of Camden, NJ. Memorial Health Alliance and West Jersey Health System subsequently merged to create Virtua Health as the largest healthcare provider in South Jersey.
In 2017, Dennis W. Pullin was named president and CEO after succeeding Richard P. Miller who held the position for 22 years. Two years into Pullin’s tenure, Virtua acquired Our Lady of Lourdes, a Catholic healthcare system operating out of the same region. Pullin knew it was imperative to establish a unified organizational culture at the onset of the acquisition – with inclusion, diversity, and equity (IDE) as the cornerstone, just as it had been at Virtua for more than a decade prior. The commitment didn’t change with the onboarding of new leadership; it intensified. “We’re committed to inclusion, diversity and equity and not just in words, but in our actions and the things that we do to improve the way not only we work together, but the way we care for our communities,” said Pullin.
According to Rhonda Jordan, Executive Vice President and Chief Human Resources Officer at Virtua, “It was important for us, as the largest healthcare provider and employer in South Jersey to truly represent the communities we serve. Actually, we’ve had diversity, equity and inclusion as a dedicated focus for over a decade since diversity initiatives were called something else twenty-plus years ago when I joined the organization. Our new CEO, Dennis Pullin, the first African American to head the organization in Virtua’s history, is leading the charge to expand our efforts. So, the roots of our commitment run deep.”
While the idea of “representing the communities we serve” may be a standard statement for many organizations, it is crystal clear that Virtua isn’t just towing the line for public relations purposes. Virtua is a true champion of hiring a diverse workforce – inclusive of C-suite roles, treating everyone equitably without favor for demographic characteristics or other identifiers and making sure everyone feels a sense of belonging in the Virtua ecosystem. So, while other organizations were scrambling after George Floyd’s tragic murder to institute or reignite their IDE initiatives and prove their commitment to equal opportunity for all, Virtua was spearheading the elevation of their existing initiatives – with the goal of pushing the organization to the forefront of IDE trailblazers in healthcare. “While the entire country was in an upheaval due to the vast disparities in economics, racial parity and LGBTQIA+ acceptance,” Jordan continued “we’ve been doing deep dives – constantly assessing whether or not our efforts (in support of our IDE mission) are making a difference in the organization and our community. However, that doesn’t mean our work is done.”
One of the hardest parts of establishing and maintaining an environment where everyone feels accepted and included is the fact that people are not homogenous. One size does not fit all. So, what makes one person feel seen, heard, and appreciated may make another person feel the opposite. This could be true even within similar ethnic, cultural, sexual orientation, or gender identity groups. Virtua was keenly aware of this and knew that gathering and analyzing data to determine the priorities of their initiatives could be the game changer they needed to accelerate progress.
Having been familiar with the DEI and data analytics work at BCT Partners, Virtua engaged the consulting firm to assist them in using data to connect the dots that would create the blueprint for improving current priorities and establishing future ones. Virtua began by conducting a pre-merger cultural assessment that revealed IDE challenges and opportunities related to gender and ethnic representation, culture and climate, and ethical and religious directives (ERDs). Based on the results of the assessment, Virtua developed an IDE strategic plan focusing on these objectives:
Cultivate a Culture of Belonging
Attract, Develop and Retain a Multi-Dimensional Workforce, and
Establish Practices to Ensure Sustainability and Accountability
This was subsequently coupled with an internal metrics tool called the Colleague Culture Survey that measures the diversity index of the organization, year-over-year and vs. national averages in the industry. This survey tool measures company performance according to the extent of agreement or disagreement by employees to the following statements:
“All employees have equal opportunity for promotion, regardless of background”
“The person I report to treats all employees equally regardless of their background”
“This organization demonstrates a commitment to workforce diversity”
“My coworkers value individuals with different backgrounds”
“This organization values employees from different backgrounds”
Since they were reorganizing after the merger with Our Lady of Lourdes and establishing a new corporate culture, they used the 2020 survey results as their baseline.
What also came out of the unification of Virtua Health and Our Lady of Lourdes was the establishment of an IDE framework and a reframing of corporate values they named the “Culture of WE” that says… “At Virtua, our culture of WE is what makes us special. Our culture sets us apart from others and moves our mission, vision, and brand promise. WE are trusted to take care of our neighbors, friends, family, and each other. WE are Best People, united by our mission in helping people be well, get well, and stay well.”
On the surface it may be difficult to see how these values translate into tangible action items, but here’s a breakdown of Culture of We categories that most align with their IDE initiatives:
WE start with the "why."
WE take ownership.
WE seek to understand before we seek to be understood.
WE model respect as we work together.
WE see strength in our differences.
WE lift each other up.
Caring with Accountability
WE are considerate.
WE speak up.
WE welcome feedback.
One popular benefit of the Culture of We was the introduction of “We Hours.” Virtua employees are allotted eight hours of paid time off that can be used as desired without impacting their designated paid time off (PTO). For example, the organization doesn’t recognize MLK Day as an official company holiday, so if an employee wanted to have this day off, they could use their We Hours instead of personal, vacation or sick time. Based on employee feedback, this initiative was not just well received, but was often used in the manner designed, for recreation, stress relief, or to rest.
However, Virtua’s success has not been without challenges They have experienced some difficulties retaining high quality hires that would expand their diversity. The numbers show of 144 critical roles filled with high-performing women and people of color talent, 31.3% of critical roles were either vacant or at risk. So, while they have made strides in hiring, Jordan shared “they (new hires) were not being retained and the success of Virtua’s IDE goals relied on a turnaround in this area.”
Despite the conscientious effort to create a model IDE workplace, Virtua also realized many employees did not feel they have an equal opportunity for promotion regardless of their background. This was actually one of the lowest scores, a notable difference from their overall score of 4.26. So, what did they do to transform these deficiencies? They created S.M.A.R.T. strategic plans that took into account what was working and what needed attention across the organization. Training in IDE awareness was at the top of the list, especially for the board, C-suite, senior leadership, and supervisors, as specified in their “Now, Plan” for 2022 which outlined strategic imperatives in culture, consumer and delivery systems. The training incorporated the Through My Eyes™ Virtual Reality (VR) immersion, which puts people in actual situations where they have to confront some of their own implicit and explicit biases. The VR experience enables the user to take part in two different ways: As an observer of how bias plays out in various situations, and also as one of the characters in the scene, accelerating their empathy for how bias affects different groups.
They were able to achieve a 100% completion rate for unconscious bias training and a 98% completion rate for courses in emotional intelligence (EQ). This is significant because in structured organizations like Virtua, policy, promotions, and adherence to IDE expectations is led from the top down. If employees don’t see leadership act with integrity with regard to IDE, they have no reason to do so either.
Virtua was also cognizant of the immense value gained from supporting and increasing representation within their “Colleague Communities,” which were modeled after best practices for employee resource groups (ERGs). As diversity within the workforce grew, so did aligning communities to ensure new hires and existing employees felt supported and seen while acclimating to and/or navigating their work environments.
Virtua is also addressing many social determinants of health directly, through programs that improve access to transportation, safe housing, and financial assistance. The community-health initiative that most sets Virtua apart is its Eat Well programs, which enhance access to healthy, affordable foods. Eat Well includes two innovative vehicles – the Mobile Grocery Store and Mobile Farmers Market – that provide nutritious, deeply discounted groceries in food-desert neighborhoods. By bringing these items directly into underserved communities, Virtua increases health literacy and improves quality-of-life. “Any conversation about the future of health care must recognize health equity and the duty we share to give people their best chance at living long, healthy lives,” Pullin said. It’s this collective mindset that makes Virtua an IDE trailblazer and the progress being made is measurable.
On the 2021 Colleague Culture Survey, Virtua scored 4.26 out of 5, which placed them in the 67th percentile of national healthcare systems in DEI performance. This was a measurable improvement on their 2020 score and placed them above the national average. That same year, they were also recognized by U.S. News and World Report as one of the “Best Regional Hospitals,” Newsweek as one of the “Best Ambulatory Surgery Centers,” and the Philadelphia Business Journal as one of the “Best Places to Work.” These and other results affirm that Virtua is at the forefront of healthcare by putting IDE at the forefront of everything they do. Their Culture of We sets them apart from others and moves their mission, vision, and brand promise – from their hearts to their hands – through the compassionate care they provide each and every day.
According to Jordan, “Culture is the lifeforce of the organization. It is how we bring our brand to life. It is how we work together, embracing diversity and teamwork, focusing on patients and consumers, leading with purpose and continually learning and improving. Moreover, it’s how we hold ourselves accountable to each other and those we serve.” Pullin, who was recognized in 2022 by Modern Healthcare as one of the 25 Top Diversity Leaders in Healthcare adds, “Our whole-hearted commitment to an inclusive, diverse and equitable workplace enables Virtua to be here for our communities, here for our patients, here for our colleagues and here for good.”