Cleveland Clinic’s mantra is “patients first,” says Brian Donley, M.D., the health system’s chief of staff. And he says his organization can’t put patients first unless it “understands the needs of our patients and the barriers to getting them the care that they need.”

In Cleveland Clinic’s case, that means a commitment to culturally competent caregivers and diversity in its management and workforce – a commitment that earlier this week earned the health system the 2016 AHA Equity of Care Award. The award recognizes hospitals for their efforts to reduce health care disparities and promote diversity within their organizations.

The Cleveland Clinic will receive the award July 18 at the Health Forum and AHA Leadership Summit in San Diego. The MetroHealth System in Cleveland; Navicent Health in Macon, Ga.; Christus Health in Irving, Texas; and West Tennessee Healthcare in Jackson, Tenn., will be recognized as honorees.

“Cleveland Clinic and its 49,000 caregivers take great pride in earning the 2016 Equity of Care Award,” Cleveland Clinic President and CEO Toby Cosgrove, M.D., said in a statement. “Our organization is committed to reducing health inequity, opening health care services to all, promoting a respectful and inclusive culToby Cosgroveture, and doing all we can to assure that every adult and child in our communities has access to the right care, at the right time and the right place.”    

Cleveland Clinic’s initiatives include online and instructor-led training to increase cultural competence for patient care and to improve how their caregivers engage with patients and their families; as well as programs aimed at moving talented minority professionals up the health care management ladder and opening career opportunities in health care to promising high school graduates and college students.

To help sustain an inclusive work environment, the health system receives input from 11 employee resource groups, which support the professional development of its diverse workforce. And 19 diversity councils – workforce advisory groups – provide strategic programming to help raise awareness about health disparities, address the health and wellness needs of the system’s diverse patient population and offer caregivers opportunities to further develop cultural competencies.  

Donley says those types of initiatives, coupled with leadership and support from its board and top-tier executives, has helped to integrate equity into Cleveland Clinic’s strategic planning, leadership recruitment and development, and board recruitment.

Donley says reducing disparities in care is not just about collecting racial, ethnic and language and other patient demographic data, but using it in ways that help address gaps in care and design programs that meet the needs of vulnerable people.

“It’s not about checking off a box and saying, ‘okay we did this or our people went through this training. Now we’re done,’” he says. “It’s about making sure everything we do is focused on our patients and the outcomes that matter to our patients.”       

Creating more equitable care demands community engagement, and the health system’s reach extends deep into the disadvantaged neighborhoods it serves.

For example, Cleveland Clinic’s Minority Men’s Health Center, opened in 2003 to treat minority men for prostate cancer, hypertension, diabetes and other general ailments. Today, it also provides spiritual care, prescription medication assistance and smoking-cessation programs. “We’re trying to find some solutions to reduce health care disparities,” explains center director Charles Modlin, M.D.  “If you don’t have access to quality health care, then your outcomes are not going to be as good.”

The center has an annual health fair that offers free health screenings and information, and encourages minorities to seek preventive health caBrian Donleyre on a regular basis. Only about 35 men showed up for the first fair 13 years ago, compared to about 2,000 people who attended this year’s fair. More than 450 Cleveland Clinic volunteers, employees, doctors and nurses also were on hand for this year’s event.

“It is inspiring to see how that program has grown by leaps and bounds,” Donley says.

It all goes back to putting patients first. “Our mission is to take care of the sick and improve people’s lives,” Donley says. “We can’t do that unless we are culturally competent … we have a diverse workforce … and are able to care for people where they live.”