GRAND RAPIDS — Along with welcoming new leadership, the Grand Rapids African American Health Institute is preparing to launch a major initiative later this year to bring greater diversity to the region’s health care workforce.
Micah Foster became executive director in January at GRAAHI, a 17-year-old nonprofit organization that works to promote parity and eliminate racial disparities in health care. Foster succeeded Shannon Wilson, who in December joined Priority Health as director of Medicaid outreach and quality after leading GRAAHI for eight years.
Since mid 2018, Foster has been managing a $400,000 planning grant GRAAHI received from the Battle Creek-based W.K. Kellogg Foundation aimed at reducing barriers to health care careers for African Americans and Latinos.
A physician assistant by training, Foster saw the lead position at GRAAHI as an opportunity to “impact society at large.”
“Doing policy and advocacy work, you really have the opportunity to expand your scope,” said Foster, who first connected with GRAAHI five years ago through an internship while attending Grand Valley State University.
“I still love providing health care and that one-on-one interaction with patients, but being at GRAAHI allows me the ability to impact the community at large in a swift and more significant way,” he said.
Foster, who holds a master’s degree from Rosalind Franklin University of Medicine and Science in Chicago and a bachelor’s degree from GVSU, views GRAAHI as “extremely well positioned” as it focuses on health care advocacy, education and research.
Over the years, the organization has established a number of partnerships and initiatives, including addressing infant mortality in the African American community and creating a health equity index that measures and tracks health disparities and inequities by ZIP code in Kent County. GRAAHI can use data from the index to inform care providers of local service needs.
“We can package it in such a way that there are tangible recommendations on how to interact with this community and effective measures to improve their health outcomes and things of that nature from our research,” said Foster, whose goals include building further partnerships locally to address racial disparities in health care.
“The issue is health equity is too large for GRAAHI to impact on its own, and it’s only through collaboration that we’ll be able to move the needle,” he said. “We’re really looking to pilot and support some models which will impact systemic change.”
The leadership transition to Foster occurred as GRAAHI prepares “to take the next steps in the evolution of the institute,” said board Chairman Paul Doyle.
That evolution comes via the Pathways to Careers in Health Care initiative backed by the $400,000 Kellogg Foundation grant, which aims to increase the pipeline of students of color opting for health care careers, thereby driving diversity in the industry.
Planning for change
GRAAHI partnered with seven West Michigan colleges and universities on the initiative — GVSU, Aquinas College, Calvin College, Davenport University, Ferris State University, Grand Rapids Community College and Hope College.
In forming the initiative last June, GRAAHI leaders said the goal was to have health care professions in the area mirror the diversity of the community, create a cadre of African American and Latino leaders in the industry, and introduce health care career options to K-12 students.
“There will be a lot of intentionally designed efforts to definitely reach and make (people) aware of the opportunity of entering into the field of health professions across the underrepresented groups, especially African American and Hispanics,” said Doyle, the founder and CEO of consulting and training firm Inclusive Performance Strategies LLC. “Organizations are trying to recruit culturally rich and diverse individuals. What we need to do is ensure that the pipeline is providing access and is diversifying in order to make that pool of candidates more diverse to be able to fill those potential jobs.
“We’ll reap the rewards of that in the long term.”
Now in the planning stages, the initiative has the potential to become a “foundational piece of work” for GRAAHI, Foster said.
Pathways to Careers in Health Care takes off later this year, he said. The effort will focus on increasing awareness, mentorship and bridging gaps in the talent pipeline, as well as aligning cultures at partnering universities and colleges, K-12 education, and at hospitals so “they are prepared to accept a more diverse workforce,” Foster said.
Research suggests that health outcomes also improve when the health care workforce “is more diverse and reflects the population they’re serving,” he said.
“That all begins in the educational system and figuring out and dismantling barriers within the system,” Foster said.
Over time, generating more diversity within health professions creates a lure for students to consider a career in the industry, he said.
“When we look at the community, we ask ourselves: Young black males and females in Grand Rapids, how many opportunities do they have to see the health care system in action, and when they see the health care system in action, do they see people that look like them from a similar cultural and racial background operating in the system?” Foster said. “We know that for a kid or a teenager, you need to be able to see people that look like you in order to internalize the belief that you could do that same job.”
When GRAAHI announced the formation of Pathways to Careers in Health Care in June, Wilson, the former executive director, cited a 2004 report that points to “glaring disparities in the quality of care, especially for racial and ethnic minorities” that “have led to thousands of premature deaths each year and incalculable hours of lost productivity, pain, and suffering.”
The report by the Sullivan Commission on Diversity in the Healthcare Workforce detailed the diversity gap and under representation of minorities in the industry nationwide. Health professions have “not kept pace with changing demographics” of the nation and the under representation in the health care workforce “may be an even greater cause of disparities in health access and outcomes” than a lack of health insurance coverage, concluded the commission, named after then-U.S. Health and Human Services Secretary Dr. Louis Sullivan.
If successful, Pathways to Careers in Health Care could become a national model for addressing racial disparities in the industry and increasing diversity within its workforce, Doyle said.
“This has come together as a major effort to really develop that model to share measurable impact,” Doyle said. “We might be able to show something on a national level for Grand Rapids. We could bring everybody pleasure to be able to say Grand Rapids has done something in this area that could be looked at.”