Information technology executives in healthcare can influence innovation within their organizations by drawing upon diverse individuals to bring new perspectives to solving complex vexing issues.

In many cases, that’s easier said than done, says Maia Hightower, MD, chief medical information officer at the University of Iowa Hospital and Clinics. Many hierarchies in healthcare organizations are dominated by males, such as hospital executives and physician leadership, and women and people of color are often under-represented.

However, new research in executive decision making shows that diversity in team composition leads to better, and often more creative decisions, says Hightower, who will be sharing her insights in a presentation on May 17 as part of Health Data Management’s second Annual “Most Powerful Women in Healthcare IT” event, honoring those for their leadership in helping the industry improve care and patient outcomes while reducing costs.

She’s a big believer in crafting teams that influence decisions in healthcare organizations, and suggests that healthcare IT provides a valuable opportunity to model diversity in such efforts to “amplify the effect of our decision making,” providing the basis for bringing diverse experiences and viewpoints to the table.

While leadership in healthcare organizations may not be diverse, most providers have staff with a wide range of education levels, roles and ethnic backgrounds, and IT executives can draw upon those to fill roles on decision making teams, Hightower believes.

“Medical assistants may only have a high school degree, while physicians and clinical scientists may be at the very top of the educational scale,” she says. “By using diversity in problem solving, there’s just a huge potential to create teams that leverage all of these different experiences and gain new insights for how to design our systems.”

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Hightower suggests IT leaders should intentionally inject professional diversity, as well as ethnic diversity, into the teams that craft decisions, but just filling in roles isn’t enough. In addition, IT leaders must model certain characteristics to ensure that diversity initiatives take root.

Lead with humility and respect. Hightower says it’s important to make the team a safe place where people are encouraged to share ideas. “If you don’t make it an inclusive environment, it can actually work against you because members will be reluctant to share ideas,” she adds. “If you value all your team members and create a safe environment where everyone knows the ground rules that there is no such thing as a bad idea, you’ll be able to open to discussion of those ideas.”

Lead with authenticity, bringing your whole self to the workplace. “That encouraged team members to bring their whole identities as well,” she says. “As a leader, I want to ensure that if you bring your whole self, it is OK.”

Lead by offering networking and providing sponsorship for career growth. Team members and IT staff need to know an IT executive will support diversity by identifying those who have potential for career growth and sponsor them to help them achieve their goals. That’s not always easy—Hightower has found that white males are often more aggressive in asking to be sponsored for career growth. “There’s fewer women and people of color knocking on my door for that,” she adds. “It may require reaching out to promising staff members who have a different perspective to sponsor them for key growth opportunities.”

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