Bringing diversity into focus

May 25, 2016 at 2:48 pm Leave a comment

A male medical resident asks an Amish woman a personal question that isn’t acceptable to discuss with a man.

Lynette Chapel-Williams

Lynette Chapell-Williams

A veteran is agitated as he waits for the doctor in a chair that doesn’t face the door; not being able to see who might enter is a trigger for his post-traumatic stress disorder.

Although medical providers likely have no intention of being insensitive, a lack of familiarity with the unique needs of certain patient populations leaves them open to interactions that can make the difference between a positive experience and a harrowing one.

As the nation’s – and central Pennsylvania’s – populations continue to change, “diversity” and “inclusion” are buzz words now more than ever, but what do they really mean and whose responsibility are they?

Diversity refers to unique personal characteristics, like gender, religion, race or age. Inclusion is creating an environment where people feel respected and valued, regardless of their aspects of diversity. As for whose responsibility?

“It’s everyone’s responsibility,” says Lynette Chappell-Williams, chief diversity officer and associate dean for diversity and inclusion, Penn State College of Medicine and Penn State Health Milton S. Hershey Medical Center.

Tucked away in the Biomedical Research Building of the college, Chappell-Williams isn’t even sure people know her office exists, let alone what it does. That helps her cause in a way – because she doesn’t want people to think advancing diversity and inclusion is the business of her office alone. Everyone plays a role.


Diversity effort all-inclusive

New to her post last November, Chappell-Williams says a team effort is the only way to attain an inclusive and respectful environment for students, faculty, staff and patients and their families.

“My goal is to help our community understand that this is a ‘we’ effort, not an ‘I’ effort,” Chappell Williams said.

From signs and written materials to having translators available, she wants the campus to constantly be asking, “Are we being inclusive?”

“It can be overwhelming,” Chappell-Williams said of the diversity effort. “That’s why it’s so important that it be a team effort, organization-wide.”

It is also important for the community to know that diversity is more than respecting the values and customs of racial and ethnic groups, which is what may come to mind first; it also includes religion, veteran status, disabilities, sexual orientation and gender identity, and more.

Increasing the visibility and support of the Medical Center campus’s commitment to diversity and inclusion includes constructing a clear campus-wide vision. While the efforts to get there may look daunting on paper, Chappell-Williams said, the expected outcome is worth the effort.

“Building an understanding of our commitment to diversity and inclusion improves diversity recruitment and increases the active engagement of faculty and staff that can support the organization’s innovative research, extraordinary patient care and educational excellence,” she said.

That sentiment is echoed by the dean and CEO, Dr. Craig Hillemeier.

“If we are going to strive for excellence, then we must also set our sights on achieving greater diversity among our faculty, staff and learners,” Hillemeier said.  “The more we embrace differences among our people, cultures and perspectives, the greater our ability to innovate and transform across our missions.”

The effort involves not only increasing the diversity of students, clinicians and patients, but improving interactions by fostering cultural understanding.

“We need to understand cultural differences,” Chappell-Williams said. “What groups are comfortable with a male nurse? What groups might not be forthcoming with medical information because it’s not the norm for their culture? We must try to understand what we need to do to cultivate a culture of respect and increase skills in interacting with people who are different.”

Especially in a medical setting, diversity efforts are both inside and outside the hospital.

“We need to get the local community on board too, which is a little different than what most organizations do. But in our case, our patients are our community,” she said.

Because Chappell-Williams believes so strongly that the educational effort must include the community, workshops are planned for the fall that will be open to the public. A workshop on Sept. 12 will discuss the intersections of diversity, while the focus will shift specifically to those with disabilities for an Oct. 5 workshop.


Faculty-, staff- and patient-focused

Faculty and staff need to develop additional interaction skills that clearly demonstrate a respect for differences in colleagues and patients.

“The first step is recognizing the need is there,’ Chappell-Williams said.

This will be done through robust educational opportunities that include training sessions, workshops and networking groups.

An early effort will focus on unconscious bias, a bias that happens automatically and is triggered by the brain making quick judgments of people and situations – judgments influenced by individual background, personal experiences and cultural environment. This bias can sneak into play in a fast-paced medical environment, when decisions often need to be made quickly. Without enough time to process a situation, unconscious bias fills in the gaps and can even be exacerbated when someone is tired or stressed – someone like a medical student who hasn’t gotten much sleep or a physician who has been in clinic all day.

The stress and fatigue commonly present in a medical setting can lead to biased decisions or assessments that health professionals would not have made if they were rested and relaxed. With the goal of minimizing unconscious bias and helping students become more culturally responsive, diversity workshops for medical students will be offered on the school’s campus this fall.

Affinity resource network groups for employees sharing in characteristics like race, ethnicity, LGBT or veteran status are already in existence to help with recruiting more diverse individuals and to provide input on increasing retention and creating an inclusive climate.

“Affinity groups allow networking opportunities for people to share similarities and differences and their experiences in the workplace,” said Dr. Nicole Williams, interim chair of the Faculty and Staff of Color Affinity Group. “The group approach brings people together so they do not feel isolated and without a voice. Our specific group provides a platform to assist in developing programs for recruiting, retaining and developing faculty and staff of color with the ultimate goal of increasing diversity at all levels throughout the Medical Center.”

Bill Krenz, chair of the LGBT Affinity Group, says the groups have value and are needed.

“I feel that the LGBT and Allies Affinity Resource Network Group is needed here on our campus, because we still have awareness work to do with our staff, students and patients,” Krenz said. “While the campus has been very supportive of the LGBT staff, there is still more to do to make sure we are moving in the right direction for fairness and equality in the workplace. The LGBT affinity group is an important resource to help educate and promote awareness.”

Veterans also have an affinity group with the goals of recognizing and supporting patients who are veterans, supporting veterans on staff and recruiting more veterans.

“As of 2014, there were 934,000 veterans in the state of Pennsylvania,” said Masayo Melser of the Veterans Affinity Group. “As an institution, we have an opportunity to improve our services and employment practices to meet the needs of this special population.” 

Additional groups will be established for individuals with disabilities and to address different religions. Chappell-Williams and her staff are committed to gathering individuals across the College of Medicine and Medical Center to address the needs of these populations. For individuals with disabilities, an effort is in place – through newsletters, presentations, and meetings – to educate the campus community about the broad definition of disability. Information about both “visible” and “invisible” disabilities is being distributed, with an emphasis on providing equal access to all on the campus.



Among students, the opportunities are wide open.

“From a racial or ethnic perspective, there is a shortage of physicians of color, and that can really make a difference when it comes to medical care for the underserved communities,” Chappell-Williams said. This shortage is particularly critical as the nation becomes more diverse.

According to projections by the U.S. Bureau of Statistics, by 2050, there will be no majority racial or ethnic group and no one racial group will make up more than 50 percent of the total population.

Chappell-Williams knows the statistics well: The U.S. white population, which is currently at 62.1 percent, will decrease to 46 percent by 2065, while the Hispanic population will increase to 24 percent, up from 18 percent currently, she said. The Asian population, at 6 percent now, will rise to 14 percent, while the black population will remain relatively the same at 13 percent.

She contrasts that to current statistics on students entering medical school which show 60 percent are white, 22 percent are Asian, 9.8 percent are Hispanic and 7.5 percent are black, according to the American Association of Medical Colleges.

“The changing national demographics mean that our student population should become increasingly more diverse as well,” she said.

Toward that end, Chappell-Williams wants to convene a group of racially diverse alumni who are interested in supporting the college’s effort to recruit prospective medical students of color and help retain current students from underrepresented backgrounds. Alumni could serve as advisors to provide information to prospective students about how to get into medical school, help identify potential medical student applicants and mentor current medical students, she added.

Chappell-Williams invites any alumni of color who are interested in being part of the effort to contact the Office of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion at 717-531-7779.



An area that might often be overlooked, inclusiveness also extends to the businesses that supply goods to campus. Increasing support of diverse vendors and businesses – those owned by women, minorities, LGBT and veterans, for example – supports local community development, Chapell-Williams said.

“What more should we be doing to buy from businesses that are owned by these individuals? Do we even think about that when we go to do business?” she said.

As part of the effort to assess where the organization is now compared to other organizations, she has elected to participate in DiversityInc’s Top 50 Companies for Diversity process and the Insight into Diversity Higher Education Excellence in Diversity, tools that assess diversity efforts. Companies that participate receive a free report card, assessing their performance compared to all competitors and in key areas of diversity management.

“Our results will give us a really good idea of areas that need work,” Chappell-Williams said.

“I don’t expect us to be recognized this year, but if they had a category for ‘best improved,’ I think we could definitely look forward to being tops there.”

By Carolyn Kimmel


Penn State College of Medicine student population greatly benefits from alumni volunteers who assist with recruiting prospective students and mentoring current students.  The College is creating an alumni group for alumni of color who are interested in helping their medical school alma mater increase diversity on campus, and ultimately, within the physician workforce.

Alumni interested in being a part of this new effort, or would like some more information, can contact Office of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion at 717-531-0003 extension 281192 or



Entry filed under: Alumni.

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