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An Interview with Deb Washington, RN

Director – Patient Care Services
Diversity Programs at Massachusetts General Hospital

Deb Washington, Director – Patient Care Services, Diversity Program at Massachusetts General Hospital and Pat Magrath of DiversityNursing.com sat down recently to discuss Deb’s role within MGH. Deb was the first person appointed when the position was created 16 years ago. Twenty-four years ago, Deb started at MGH as a staff nurse in Med/Surg and moved to Psych  after getting her Master’s. Deb stated “this job really is about psychology”. While Deb’s position reports to the VP -PCS, she also works closely with Human Resources.  Deb points out “it is an important and invaluable collaboration”.

Deb keeps MGH current  with specific problems that confront an organization aiming for a diverse workforce and a culturally competent clinical staff. High performance, cost effectiveness and excellent customer service dominate conversations in healthcare today. Deb knows  MGH has to be on the cutting edge of cultural competence globally, nationally and locally. CLAS standards  are the strongest reference point for understanding what that means in healthcare today.  Keeping leadership, in any organization, part of that dialogue is key to performance.

So how did this position come to be? Over 2 decades ago, MGH put together a task force to evaluate their capacity to meet the needs of patients as well as a professional staff from a broad range of cultural and linguistic backgrounds. Ethically MGH understood the importance of providing the highest standard and safest quality of care for all patients seeking health services. Deb was asked to chair that task force. One of the recommendations coming out of that work was to create a Director position to ensure a successful launch for a diversity initiative. Deb was encouraged by her mentors and other colleagues to apply for this new leadership role.

Pat has known Deb for 3 years and was quite surprised to learn that Deb had to be coaxed to take the job because she admits she was quite shy and felt the job was beyond her novice leadership abilities. Pat states “I’ve seen Deb speak in front of a large group of people and she makes it look easy. She appears to be very comfortable and in control of the group”. Deb loves the work she does and knows she is helping to make a difference at MGH. She works very closely with managers and staff educating them about sensitivity to staff and patients who are from various backgrounds. MGH has patients from all over the world and chooses to be responsive to the fact that they must hire people who represent their patient populations. Deb states “staff must connect  to patients. They must be credible practitioners, not only in meeting the standards of licensure, but in the eyes of a population no longer static in its demographic makeup, traditions, customs or social values. This all means having the ability to provide individualized care. The advantage of working with a diverse workforce is that you work with people who understand specific cultures, beliefs and attitudes. This translates in to better patient care and a greater sense of satisfaction from patients and families with that care. ”

Deb discovered that “once you solve workplace issues influenced by race, other controversial areas of difference such as sexual orientation, age or spirituality, for example, also become less difficult to discuss. Employees who may have wondered… Am I being heard?… Am I understood?  have the opportunity to express these concerns more openly. Institutions without a formal diversity program run the risk of staff feeling on the margins of what it means to be included. Organizational culture is set by the majority and the standards of acceptable and unacceptable reflect the comfort level of that particular organizational majority.”

When a healthcare institution makes the decision to have someone like Deb on their staff, they have someone who can synthesize what is happening internally. Deb collaborates with administrative and managerial leadership to help create an organizational environment where healthy communication is the expected standard. Deb tells the story of being a participant in a leadership program in which she cobbled together her favorite definition of diversity. “It is the ability to hold multiple perspectives without judgment” she says. She explained that sometimes assumptions are made about specific groups of people. Deb suggests all leaders should wonder when sitting down to problem solve… Who’s not here?  Deb states “the ability to drive change in the 21st century of healthcare is to bring new voices and perspectives to the decision making table. That includes a more diverse professional workforce and a more empowered patient population.”

One of the key parts of Deb’s role is to create awareness about the different groups of people who work at MGH. She explained that holidays can be a big issue, particularly for Nurse Managers who handle the scheduling, for example. She encourages them to be culturally aware of not just the holidays he or she celebrates, but the holidays celebrated by the different groups that make up a multi-ethnic, multi-lingual employee population.

In closing Deb said “the importance of having an Office of Diversity is linked with an organization’s desire to be at the forefront of a changing American society. Many metropolitan areas have become and are continuing to grow into minority majority communities. We need a health system that delivers the quality of care that merits the confidence of all its users. Diversity in nursing is important evidence of that distinction.”

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