The AHA Class of 2019 profiles the women and men who joined the AHA board this year.


Detroit-based Henry Ford Health System’s (HFHS) commitment to advancing health equity and fostering diversity is one reason why AHA board member Wright Lassiter III joined the organization as system president in 2014.

The HFHS president – and CEO since January as part of a planned transition – says promoting more equitable care and diversity – a major AHA goal – is more than just the right thing to do. It also is the smart thing to do, given the increasingly value- and performance-driven health care world.

“When you think about the field’s efforts to reduce readmissions and preventable infections, provide more value and reduce the cost of care, those things are steeped into an organization’s understanding of the unique makeup of its patient population and how it responds [to disparities] through its health equity activities,” says Lassiter, who joined the AHA board on Jan. 1. “It is not hard to make the business case that you can segregate and aggregate data based upon social determinants of health and apply direct and more precise interventions that get you better results and performance.”

HFHS received a 2015 AHA Equity of Care Award, which recognizes hospitals and health systems for their efforts to reduce health care disparities and promote diversity within their organizations.   

Among other initiatives, the AHA noted that the health system collects demographic data from more than 90% of its patients and embeds that data into “Equity Dashboards” that are part of the overall quality and service metrics tracked by all business units to spur interventions in areas like diabetes outcomes among African American patients. It also uses cultural competency as an ongoing training for employees and clinicians to provide high-quality care. And efforts to promote minorities up the executive ladder resulted in a 57% increase in minorities in top leadership levels and a 44% increase in females in top leadership levels from 2009 to 2014.

Given those achievements, it is no surprise that HFHS also is a strong supporter of the AHA’s #123for Equity Pledge to Eliminate Health Care Disparities. Under the campaign, hospitals and health systems pledge to improve the collection and use of race, ethnicity and language preference and sociodemographic data; cultural competency training; and diversity in leadership and governance.

Nearly 1,500 hospitals and health systems are participating in the campaign, which Lassiter says can help accelerate progress on this critical work.

HFHS’ advancement of health equity is part of the more than a century-old health system’s longstanding and deep-rooted community connections. The health system’s commitment to building healthier communities earned it the 2004 Foster G. McGaw Prize for excellence in community service.

Among other areas, those community initiatives are making progress in improving Detroit’s high infant mortality rate, preventing unintended pregnancies, combating obesity and boosting fruit and vegetable consumption among low-income schoolchildren.

“This organization was ahead of the curve when it came to community engagement, and I fully intend to continue that legacy,” Lassiter says.

Lassiter joined HFHS as its president in December 2014, and assumed the post of CEO this past January. He succeeded Nancy Schlichting, who retired at the end of 2016. HFHS has six hospitals – including its flagship Henry Ford Hospital – one of the nation’s largest group practices with more than 1,100 physicians practicing in more than 40 specialties, an insurance company – Health Alliance Plan covering 650,000 members – and an accountable care organization.

Hospitals that better coordinate care, expand access and reach new patients have the advantage in a value-based health care environment, says Lassiter. HFHS has pursued affiliation strategies that are helping it to expand its scope of services, achieve greater economies of scale and improve operational efficiencies.

“The sweet spot for us is an integrated care and coverage model, where we can leverage our large medical group, community medical staff and our insurance company much more effectively,” he says.

Before joining HFHS, Lassiter served for nine years as CEO of Alameda Health System in Oakland, Calif. During his tenure at Alameda, the health system earned The Joint Commission’s “Top Performer” designation for quality and patient satisfaction.

He also is a former chairman of the AHA Section for Metropolitan Hospital’s council, and is a member of the AHA’s Task Force for Ensuring Access to Care in Vulnerable Communities. 

Lassiter wants to turn HFHS into a “high reliability organization” – taking what he sees as the next leap in quality beyond the health system’s 2011 selection for the Malcolm Baldrige National Quality Award and its No Harms Campaign, begun in 2005, to reduce medical mistakes.

High reliability organizations – like those in the aviation and nuclear industries – put systems in place that make them exceptionally consistent in accomplishing their goals and avoiding serious errors. 

“High reliability is the next journey for us,” Lassiter says. “We believe it can take us to the highest level of safety and performance for our patients, employees and customers.” 

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