By Emma Cotton/VTDigger
Following a petition presented by 39 employees to hospital leadership last month, Rutland Regional Medical Center has begun scrutinizing its policies to ensure staff and patients are treated equally regardless of race.
The petition, submitted shortly after protests erupted following the killing of George Floyd by a white police officer in Minneapolis, asked the hospital to publicly acknowledge systemic racial disparities within the country’s medical system, organize implicit bias training for employees, and raise the Black Lives Matter flag over the hospital.
Hospital leadership checked two of these boxes earlier this month, releasing statements from both CEO Claudio Fort and department leaders the same day they hoisted the flag, which will fly through the end of August.
“I think we’re all living in a celebratory moment,” said Ryn Gluckman, an emergency room nurse who organized the petition. “It feels like an incredible decision that Claudio Fort made.”
Now, the hospital embarks on the nuanced plight of training staff members to avoid implicit and explicit biases, partially kicked off by a meeting of the hospital’s Diversity and Inclusion Steering Committee last week.
“I think there’s a sense, too, for those of us who are doing the work, that this is just a beginning,” Gluckman, a committee member, said. “It’s fantastic to fly the flag, and that’s not the bulk of the work. There’s structural work to be done, which is much harder than raising the flag. Leadership seems to understand that.”
A statement from the hospital’s medical director, chief nursing officer and medical staff officer outlines key steps the institution will take in the coming months to promote equality within the hospital’s system.
Among them, leadership will hold implicit bias training for all employees, use data from the Community Health Needs Assessment Survey to analyze the needs of Rutland’s community members of color, build a more diverse and inclusive workforce, and provide continued diversity education for staff.
This pivotal moment, in which employees have asked for substantial changes to improve the hospital’s diversity policies, comes as the hospital continues to face a host of other challenges as it navigates the continued pandemic.
Hospital administrators reported that RRMC will experience a $14 million loss due to Covid-19, which has resulted in staff cuts.
“We, as a health care provider, have come through, and are still in, a very stressful time,” said Brian Kerns, president of Human Resources and a chair of the steering committee. “We’ve had to make budget cuts as well, and let some staff go. But still, we feel the diversity and inclusion work is the right work for us to be doing.”
Many of the hospital’s forthcoming changes will be organized and carried out by the committee. Instead of providing bias training only to the hospital’s management team, it will organize training for all of RRMC’s 1,600 employees, to begin in August.
Kerns said the training will be given virtually to groups of 30 to 50 employees by a consultant in hour-long sessions. He believes virtual sessions may have drawbacks, but will still allow folks to ask questions and share fears or concerns.
“This is work that we would typically do in face-to-face meetings with employees,” Kerns said. “We would prefer that, but given the restrictions with social distancing, there’s a strong chance that we’ll have to do it online.”
Kerns said the main objective — and challenge — is getting employees comfortable talking about the culture that can be caused by racial biases.
Several members of hospital staff have recently worn wristbands indicating support for organizations such as Back the Blue and Blue Lives Matter. The wristbands have caused other employees to criticize the hospital for allowing any of its employees to visibly express views that could appear to oppose racial justice.
“We did want to make sure, to the extent that we’re aware of this — and I’ve had some personal involvement with this that we didn’t have any employees who were making a statement directly against Black Lives Matter. We look into all of the situations like that,” Kerns said.
Kerns said he’s seen all types of wristbands at RRMC, including Livestrong and LQBTQ+ bracelets, and hospital policy wouldn’t prohibit the employees from wearing one and not another.
Issues of race have cropped up in the past at the hospital. In 2016, Roger Speid, a former employee, filed a complaint against the hospital for racial harassment following an incident in which someone hung a noose from a door in his work area.
“It’s a big commitment of resource and time, but one that we feel is some of the most important work that we’re going to do this year,” Kerns said.