Metro

Teaching hospitals pledge to hire, treat more minorities

Dana-Farber Cancer Institute plans to hire a new leader for diversity programs and to require all faculty and administrative leaders to complete a bias awareness workshop.
Suzanne Kreiter/Globe staff/file
Dana-Farber Cancer Institute plans to hire a new leader for diversity programs and to require all faculty and administrative leaders to complete a bias awareness workshop.

Two of Boston’s top teaching hospitals said they are expanding efforts to hire more black and Latino doctors, and to ensure their facilities are welcoming to minorities they treat — an attempt to address two longstanding issues in the health care industry.

Dana-Farber Cancer Institute, one of the nation’s leading cancer centers, plans to hire a new leader for diversity programs and to require all faculty and administrative leaders to complete a bias awareness workshop, and has set diversity goals in its 2018 strategic plan.

“Dana-Farber has a strong foundation of work in diversity and inclusion, but we recognize we need to do more,’’ spokeswoman Ellen Berlin said in an e-mail to the Globe.

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Executives at Massachusetts General Hospital said it will implement a broad plan this year that includes hiring a new chief diversity officer as well as more minority physicians, evaluating department heads and senior leaders on whether they have achieved diversity goals, and promoting the hospital in Boston’s minority communities to draw more black and Latino patients.

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“We need to be even more diligent and intentional,’’ said Shea Asfaw, chief of staff at Mass. General. “There is a void of a narrative about MGH in the communities of Roxbury, Mattapan, and Dorchester.’’

The actions come partly in response to a Boston Globe Spotlight series on race published in December. It included data showing a lack of minority physicians at some of the city’s elite hospitals, and evidence of persistent segregation patterns among patients. MGH said its efforts were underway before the Globe’s stories were published, but the series increased focus on diversity issues.

The seven-part series examined whether Boston deserves its longstanding reputation as a place unwelcoming to blacks. Relying on data analysis, surveys, and personal stories, the Spotlight team focused on the core of the city’s identity: its renowned colleges, world-class medical institutions and championship sports teams; the expanding skyline, especially the new Seaport neighborhood; and business and politics.

In its health care analysis, the Globe found that blacks in Boston are less likely to get care at several of the city’s elite hospitals, including Dana-Farber and Mass. General.

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Just 11 percent of Bostonians admitted to Mass. General, the city’s largest hospital, are black, far fewer than its peers. Nearly 2 in every 5 white Boston residents diagnosed with cancer are treated at Dana-Farber, but only 1 in 5 black residents with the disease are treated there.

Data also showed that most Boston hospitals employ relatively few black physicians. Dana-Farber has eight, out of 359 doctors, about 2 percent. About 3 percent of Mass. General’s 2,349 doctors are black. Mass. General executives said they have hired two new black primary care doctors this year.

The reasons for the relatively low numbers of minority patients and doctors are complex, including restrictions on where Medicaid recipients can get care. And hospitals across the country face challenges hiring minority doctors.

But the series spurred dozens of forums on race across the region to discuss improving the situation, and prompted Dana-Farber, Mass. General, and other hospitals to organize internal employee meetings about racial inequities.

Dana-Farber and MGH are in early discussions with Boston Medical Center about allowing cancer patients there more access to clinical trials at the two Harvard teaching hospitals. The trials test standard therapies against promising yet unproven therapies.

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BMC, which treats more black patients than any other hospital in the city, offers very few clinical trials, yet Dana-Farber and Mass. General offer dozens.

Frederica Williams, president of the Whittier Street Health Center in Roxbury, said that 15 to 20 percent of the cancer patients at the health center participate in clinical trials — far higher than average in the United States — because of the center’s partnership with Dana-Farber.

“If we are really focused on decreasing cancer disparities, that is what we need to do,’’ said Williams, who is also on the Dana-Farber board.

Executives at the cancer hospital would not agree to an interview, saying the hospital’s new efforts are just getting started. But in the e-mail, Berlin said plans include undertaking a “qualitative assessment’’ focused on hiring more minorities and improving their experience working at Dana-Farber. The assessment will include focus groups, interviews, and brainstorming forums with faculty and staff and will examine recruitment, retention, and culture.

Massachusetts Eye and Ear, also a Harvard teaching hospital, has increased its participation at diversity job fairs and “sought other methods to yield a more diverse applicant pool,’’ said spokeswoman Jennifer Street. The Globe series found the specialty hospital employed just one black doctor out of 192 physicians.

Dr. Jeroan Allison, a professor at the University of Massachusetts Medical School who specializes in research on health disparities, said strategic plans and one-time workshops are a start. But institutions must invest enough resources in programs to change culture and get results. He believes one of the most effective strategies is tying merit pay to diversity goals.

Elmer Freeman, director of urban health programs at Northeastern University’s Bouvé College of Health Sciences, said the hospitals should be taking more dramatic measures to improve a persistent problem. “We need to have a person of color not as diversity director but as CEO,’’ he said.

Dana-Farber runs a cancer clinic twice a month at Whittier Street, but its next major expansion — including space for chemotherapy treatment, imaging, and clinical trials — is planned for the wealthy Chestnut Hill neighborhood of Newton and Brookline.

Executives said the new location will allow them to improve access at the hospital’s main site in the Longwood Medical Area in Boston, and that they have satellites in Lawrence and Methuen, which have large numbers of Hispanic residents.

The Globe series prompted Mass. General’s Center for Diversity and Inclusion to submit a list of five recommendations to hospital leaders. The proposal, a copy of which was provided to the Globe, said that applicants for residency training programs have asked about the racial atmosphere at the hospital.

The center has achieved some success in recent years. The number of black physicians at the hospital has doubled since 2004. And Mass. General last year drew its largest number of new black, Latino, and other residents, or doctors in training, from under-represented minority groups — 44 out of 259 residents, or 17 percent.

But recruiting minorities is a struggle, since Boston housing is expensive and applicants often have the impression that the city is unwelcoming to blacks, a reputation the city is grappling with.

“When I was applying I was told, ‘Why you would apply there? This was a racist city,’ ’’ said Utibe Essien, a Mass. General medicine fellow and a member of the Center for Diversity and Inclusion advisory board. That impression “is a reality that causes some limitation to recruitment,’’ he said.

Liz Kowalczyk can be reached at kowalczyk@globe.com.