An interview with President and CEO of Allina Health Dr. Penny Wheeler
The MSR sat down with Dr. Wheeler after learning about the role she and her organization played in helping to pull together 30 health service providers and stakeholders to make a commitment to diversity, equity and inclusion. In the wake of the killing of George Floyd by police on Memorial Day the providers agreed to adhere to a set of principles that would help guide their efforts to be more diverse, equitable and inclusive.
MSR: Give us a bit of information about your background. What in it led you to this moment where you are leading a large corporation that is taking a long look at what it can do to increase its diversity?
Wheeler: I am a physician by background after practicing for 20 years at Abbott Northwestern. I am surprised that I am leading the organization in which I was born. I love being a doctor.
Traditionally there have been terrible health inequities where health care is concerned. I was at the funeral of an African American who had died at 36 of heart disease about 10 years ago. The person who was eulogizing him said that he felt erased by the health care system.
Ever since then that story has stuck with me. We are trying to do everything we can to eliminate health disparities and the systemic racism that they represent.
MSR: What motivated you to put the principles together found in your pledge for a commitment to diversity, equity and inclusion [see sidebar] and to encourage others to sign on?
Wheeler: First of all, this has been a commitment for me personally and us organizationally for a long time. Eyes were wider opened about the disparities and systemic racism that existed after the terrible killing of George Floyd.
So I started to call on what others had done, like the Wilder Foundation. I was at a disparities leadership program out at Mass General and looked at principles they were raising up in Chicago. And I thought, what if we could do that as a community and all of these organizations signed on to it.
It’s not [just] for words on paper, but if we could get them out in the public and people can say now you put those out there in public, but what have you done about them? If people could hold us publicly accountable to adhere to those principles, then I thought we could come at some terribly dark time in our community’s history and use it as a pivot point to something much better.
MSR: The last few months have been marked by reflection, listening and learning in the wake of George Floyd’s death. What have you learned?
Wheeler: We increasingly learned that we have to accompany community and listen to community on this journey. We were going to do this big health care initiative in the Phillips, Powderhorn neighborhood. I remember an elder saying, “So you think health is the absence of disease? We think health is a roof over our heads, it’s safety, it’s a job.”
The lesson there was listen and learn first. Then take action that’s meaningful to the entire community.
MSR: How do you address the health disparity that exists in the Black community?
Wheeler: We think we have basically four roles. We are a provider of care, we are an employer, we purchase services, and we can advocate for equity principles on those things. And we are actually a community member
We look at our programs and we have a filter where we can, for example, look at our diabetes scores and say, well, guess what—those are for White people… When you look at Indigenous people or Black people, we don’t have the same scores. So you work with community members to see how can we do things differently.
We thought how do we raise these difficult but meaningful conversations with everybody and do it in the best and most sensitive way. We look at why this conscious bias exists and what we can do about it.
MSR: Where does the idea come from that Black people have a higher threshold for pain?
Wheeler: I am sure it has some deep historical roots. The danger of the stereotypes that exist for Black and Latinx People of Color are profound. We have been having listening circles with our providers and doctors of color, where they are not rated as highly by patients than others because of the color of their skin. There is bias on the patient side and the provider side.
Even doctors of color are not looked at fairly. Something that fosters trust is having a provider who you can see yourself in. It’s incumbent on us to increase the representation of Communities of Color in leadership and on the provider side. I am learning more about the history of racism like the redlining project a house I previously owned nobody of African American descent could have owned the house before 1965.
MSR: How do we make sure that the next pandemic that comes along does not disproportionately affect the health of Black people as has the COVID pandemic?
Wheeler: Health is not the absence of illness. It’s more holistic. There are a lot of health-related social needs like access to food, access to housing, and access to jobs, and those kinds of things. And those are born of systemic racism.
The way we keep a pandemic from disproportionately affecting one community over others is to get to the heart of the bias and systemic racism that exists, making health risk factors more likely in certain communities than others.
These principles are not [just] words on a piece paper. I want people to come back five months or six months later and say, “What have you done? Show us the results of what you have done.”
MSR: We have read about Allina allowing its corporate space in South Minneapolis to be used by youth needing a break from distance learning at home. How did that come about?
Wheeler: We have over 80 first-to twelfth-graders in our vacated space. It started with Pastor Jon Robinson of St. Peters AME Church talking about the needs he was hearing from his members, and our community benefits person took this on.
Two small not-for-profits and one large nonprofit worked together. As far as I know, we are the first organization that didn’t just contribute money but contributed space.
MSR: How has Allina began making good on the commitment that it signed on to? What are your plans for increasing the diversity at Allina?
Wheeler: Things that get measured get done sometimes. We are looking at how are we closing the gap in health care disparities like the diabetes care, like the hospice care, on the provider side.
On the employer side, we have a very diverse employee base but they don’t always ascend to leadership positions. So we are looking at how do we give people greater opportunities, greater support, so we actually increase the numbers in our leadership team. Not only is it the right thing to do, it makes you perform better as an organization when you have a more diverse leadership team. Whenever we have an open position, we are looking at diverse people for it.
On the purchaser side, we want to make sure that when we are building a facility that a lot of the contractors and services are done by minority-owned businesses.
MSR: How does Allina maintain a welcoming environment?
Wheeler: That’s an important thing, if you don’t have fertilized soil, you won’t have ways for people to grow and even want to stay. We are having deep conversations internally. I participated in two listening sessions with physicians of color in the last couple of weeks There is even bias built into the grading of doctors.
We are doing that with our employee resource groups as well. A patient said something racist to an African American nurse in their presence. The doctor who was White said to the person that was racist what you just said I don’t know if you intended it that way but it came out very biased and that’s hurtful. I think it’s time we stand up for each other and don’t put the onus on the person who is affected to do that. That matters. We have to stand up for each other.
MSR: You said in the Community Conversation sponsored by St Peters AME Church that “As an organization we need to be really thoughtful about our diversity, equity and inclusion work—and we have to be relentless in implementing it.” How can you be relentless in implementing inclusion? What does that look like for you?
Wheeler: It’s everything we do. We start by looking at things through a diversity and equity lens. You have to put it in the forefront and be intentional about it. I want this to be in everybody’s world in the forefront of everybody’s mind. We don’t want to check the box and say we are OK.
MSR: How will the community know that Penny Wheeler isn’t just talking and that her corporation has no intention on following through with her progressive and lofty goals in the area of diversity and inclusion?
Wheeler: You have to look at the actions that we take as an organization. We have taken many, but we have many more to take. How you know it’s not just talk is by holding us accountable to the principles we have signed on to.
MSR: You said in an interview a while back that a mentor of yours once said, “I think health care is more about love than anything else.” What do you think he meant by that?
Wheeler: In health care it’s about one person oftentimes dealing with the suffering of another and helping to help them feel whole. What would it take if we could do that for the whole community? Relieving the suffering of the whole community—that’s about love. It’s a big word, but it’s the right word for these times.
The full interview has been abridged for brevity. Go to the next page to see 30 health providers’ statement about racial disparities in health care.