After leading the Dayton administration’s efforts to broaden racial diversity in state government, James Burroughs is joining the Children’s Minnesota hospital system as chief equity and inclusion officer.
He’d been taking his 6-year-old daughter, Teresa, to Children’s for years for treatment of her sickle cell disease, a blood disorder that disproportionately affects people of African descent. One day her doctor urged Burroughs to apply for the post. Sickle cell cases have been rising in Minnesota, alarming advocates and opening a window into the state’s large gaps in health between white residents and those of color.
“We eventually want to end all health care disparities in the state of Minnesota,” said Burroughs, who is African-American.
An attorney by training, Burroughs was hired by Gov. Mark Dayton in 2016 as chief inclusion officer. The 51-year-old Brooklyn Park resident helped increase the share of racial minorities in the state government workforce to 13.1 percent. While that fell short of Dayton’s goal of 20 percent by the end of his term, Burroughs noted that the figure had risen from 8 percent in 2011.
That’s “much better towards ending [racial] disparities … than staying the same,” Burroughs said.
Now he wants to increase the racial diversity of employees at Children’s, as well as hiring more LGBT workers and people with disabilities. Some 21 percent of the organization’s employees are people of color, compared to 46.9 percent of patients, and until recently the 14-member sickle-cell team was all white.
“We must make sure that we’re giving every community equitable service, and that means giving them what they need in our communities and not just treating everybody the same in patient care,” said Burroughs, who has previously worked as a lawyer, law professor, corporate consultant and executive director of Minneapolis Public Schools.
Lor Lee did similar work at Children’s years ago and now serves as administrative director at Mayo Clinic’s office of diversity and inclusion. While diversity and inclusion efforts aren’t new in medicine, he said, “there is a higher sense of urgency for health care institutions to be taking this on.”
Over the past 15 years, he noted, the work has expanded beyond just hiring and retaining a more diverse workforce to having a larger impact across the organization and improving community engagement, the diversity of suppliers and more.
“There’s more and more conversations about disparities,” said Lee, noting that Minnesota is one of the healthiest states overall but that large gaps emerge when the numbers are broken down by race. “More and more health care institutions across the state are really having a key focus on that.”
At Allina Health, Jackie Thomas-Hall took over as director of diversity after doing similar work over the years at General Mills, Medtronic and other health care systems.
“Diversity goes beyond race and gender,” Thomas-Hall said. “There are opportunities to focus on our millennials, there are opportunities to think about our ability to hire veterans or the disabled, the opportunity to hire the LGBTQ population.”
Children’s is the seventh-largest pediatric hospital and clinic system in the United States, and CEO Marc Gorelick said he hopes that Burroughs “will look across the entire organization and help turn this from a series of what have been successful projects into something that is really woven into the fabric of the organization.”
He noted, for example, that children with sickle-cell disease may have fewer financial resources. Children’s wants to ensure that they have transportation to doctors’ appointments and the ability to pay for prescriptions, and to consider other factors that affect their medical care.
The same goes for asthma, which disproportionately affects black children. And Gorelick pointed out the importance of cultural understanding when dealing with some American Indian and Hmong patients who want to incorporate traditional healing practices into Western medical care.
“Frankly, [racial disparities] are larger here, but they’re large everywhere,” said Gorelick. “I don’t think anyone gets a pass on this one. I think we have relatively more work to do than others, but none of us can feel like we’re doing a good job.”
Burroughs said he wants to improve the transition for sickle-cell patients graduating from Children’s into adult care. But he’s mindful of a range of other challenges affecting patients from racial minority groups. For example, he said, communities of color sometimes have different views on mental health, “and if you don’t have a culturally competent way of providing that health care service, it could be perceived in a negative way.”
As he did under Dayton, Burroughs also wants to increase the ranks of women and minority-owned businesses among Children’s suppliers.
While he didn’t have a large budget at the Capitol, Burroughs said administration leaders made his mission a priority.
“If the same is true with leadership at Children’s Hospital, we’ll be able to do the same,” he said.