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HCA Healthcare: Leveraging Partnerships for Community Impact

The connection between a company and the people it serves is key to the success of any business, but that bond is especially vital for a company like HCA Healthcare, whose hospitals are indispensable community institutions. HCA Healthcare’s Chief Diversity Officer and Vice President of Community Engagement each gave their perspective on how the upheaval of 2020 deepened those bonds, forged new and stronger community partnerships, and strengthened HCA Healthcare in its mission of being “committed to the care and improvement of human life.”

Joanne Pulles, Vice President for Community Engagement for HCA Healthcare, looks to camera in a blue jacket with an interesting collar.
Joanne Pulles, Vice President for Community Engagement, HCA Healthcare and President, The HCA Healthcare Foundation & The HCA Healthcare Hope Fund

Joanne Pulles, Vice President of Community Engagement and a 22-year veteran at HCA Healthcare, oversees the effort to ensure the relationship between company and communities remains strong. Given HCA Healthcare’s substantial footprint operating across 20 states and in the United Kingdom, that’s no small order. HCA Healthcare fosters community relations in each geographic division, partners with civic organizations through the HCA Healthcare Foundation, and supports colleagues through unexpected crises via the HCA Healthcare Hope Fund, a colleague-run, colleague-supported 501(c)(3) public charity.

According to Pulles, the company’s community engagement can be defined by both a willingness to step up in moments of need, and a commitment to long-term partnerships. The last year has required both.

Internal Diversity Improves External Care

Since Chief Diversity Officer Sherri Neal first joined HCA Healthcare 15 years ago, she’s seen major shifts. In the last few years, the company heightened efforts to make diversity, equity & inclusion (DEI) work data-driven. “Like other organizations, we had to stop and take a look at the diversity in our leadership pipeline. Our data confirmed areas of opportunity.”

That realization led to “broad-based” planning and a renewed commitment to DEI from CEO Sam Hazen, culminating in the rollout of a new comprehensive approach to diversity in early 2020—seemingly catastrophic timing. However, the pandemic ended up providing momentum. “We had to rethink how we’re doing our work, how were reflecting, how were training and educating…all that had to change,” says Neal.

The murder of George Floyd became another inflection point, prompting a groundswell of interest at all levels of the organization in more DEI conversations. “We said, ‘This is an opportunity,’” Neal says. “It’s been a long time since, collectively, we’ve all been really focused on the importance of DEI. That was pivotal.”

That focus powered a flurry of activity. HCA Healthcare decided to adapt its annual code of conduct training, embedding new conscious inclusion content. The organization deepened existing partnerships with local Black institutions such as Fisk University and pledged $10 million to HBCUs and Hispanic-serving institutions to ensure a diverse pipeline of future healthcare talent. A new sponsorship program has been accelerated for Black colleagues, with expansion already planned for other groups. Employee resource groups, long seen as challenging to implement across the company’s broad geography, were set up and thrived in a year of difficult conversations.

For Neal, having a company culture that takes seriously internal questions of diversity, equity, and inclusion can only help them to better serve diverse communities. “People go into healthcare because they care about people,” she says. “We’re rolling out education and training that’s going to advance our commitment to our patients and, ultimately, our communities. I see them all as integrated.”

Sherri Neal, Chief Diversity Officer, HCA Healthcare looks smiling to camera, wearing a blue blazer.
Sherri Neal, Chief Diversity Officer, HCA Healthcare

Leveraging Data with Partners for Public Good

One of the early needs as COVID-19 first spread in the United States was for a national, centralized hub of data to track outbreaks. As the nation’s largest healthcare system, HCA Healthcare had data from its own locations in 20 states, which it used internally to help anticipate regional waves. However, executives knew this information could be even more powerful if combined with other sources. Working with Google Cloud and SADA, the company helped to construct the National Response Portal, which brought together data from a number of sources to both track and forecast disease hotspots in the US.

As time went on and treatments were devised, more collaboration was needed to identify treatment best practices. HCA Healthcare began rolling out automated alerts in June based on internal data that helped to reduce unnecessary ventilator usage, increasing survival rates. Again recognizing how vital its data could be to the healthcare community, in January 2021 the company announced a consortium of prominent public, private and academic research institutions to supplement its own research efforts and help caregivers within and beyond the company improve patient outcomes.

Having seen during the pandemic how its data can be used to support clinicians and improve care, HCA Healthcare has forged ahead with new collaborations. In May, they announced a long-term partnership with Google Cloud “to develop algorithms to help improve operating efficiency, monitor patients and guide doctors’ decisions,” securely employing aggregate de-identified data to improve patient care, as reported by the Wall Street Journal.

Sherri Neal also predicts that eventually such data-sharing will better enable the country’s healthcare leaders to unravel and combat persistent racial disparities in patient care and outcomes. “COVID taught us a lot of lessons. There’s so much that we can learn through data-sharing. This is something we absolutely know that we can’t do alone,” she says.

Expertise and Partnerships for Public Health

HCA Healthcare’s day-to-day work involves treating patients that come through its facility doors—or, since the pandemic began, increasingly reaching them via telemedicine. However, on a variety of health challenges, the company forms long-term partnerships with other organizations to marry its expertise with their capacity to effect even broader change.

As the severity of the COVID mental health crisis for young people came into focus, the company’s leaders quickly identified EVERFI, a leader in driving social change through education, as an ideal partner for mental health education efforts. “We got to know their team,” says Pulles, “and found we aligned in terms of philosophy and the way we approach community.” In October, they rolled out Mental Wellness Basics, an education module for students including local HCA Healthcare behavioral health experts, to a set of schools in Florida. Rapidly exceeding initial expectations, the initiative has already reached 15,000 students in 105 schools, and the company plans to support the initiative with $1 million over the next few years to magnify that impact.

Medical staff from HCA Healthcare facilities partnering with law enforcement to collect unused pain medication in October 2020's #CrushTheCrisis event.
Medical staff from HCA Healthcare facilities partnered with law enforcement to collect unused pain medication in October 2020’s #CrushTheCrisis event.

For the last several years, the United States has battled deadly addictions to opioid painkillers. In 2017, Dr. Jeffrey Hodrick, an affiliated HCA Healthcare orthopedic surgeon, spearheaded an effort to partner with local law enforcement on “Crush the Crisis” days to collect unused drugs and educate communities. What began as a local initiative quickly spread across the organization, leading to an alignment with the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency. Despite the pandemic, the company’s 2020 “Crush the Crisis” events collected an estimated 9.3 million doses of medication at 95 facilities in 18 states. HCA has also worked with the government and the National Academy of Medicine on new standards of care to reduce opioid mortality.

Sherri Neal also stresses the importance of partnerships to efforts to research and rectify health disparities affecting Black and Latino communities, even as the company’s outcomes remain ahead of national averages. HCA Healthcare is exploring opportunities to deepen work with the American Cancer Society, the American Heart Association, and the March of Dimes to combat racial inequities in cancer screenings, heart health, and maternal and infant care.

The work that the company and its partners are doing outside of its facilities’ walls relies on close involvement from clinical leaders and their expertise. In each of these initiatives, Chief Medical Officer Dr. Jonathan Perlin comes up again and again as a key voice and partner. His engagement on these topics is an object lesson in how companies should connect their subject matter experts with their social initiatives to maximize potential impact.

“Every Company Is a Citizen”

On the whole, while HCA Healthcare has always had a robust relationship with its communities, those ties were deepened by the events of the last year. “We’ve known this for a long time, but the crisis made it even more clear that partnerships can be so powerful in impacting our communities,” says Pulles. To cement this impact, the company recently announced that the HCA Healthcare Foundation has established the $50 million Healthier Tomorrow Fund, “designed to support innovative initiatives focused on addressing high-priority community needs and advancing health equity.”

When asked how others in an organization can support DEI work to connect company and community, Neal said she was inspired by those who had stepped up despite the delicacy of the conversation. Leaders from CEO Sam Hazen on down, she says, have been engaged and had frank conversations about the challenges they’re facing.  “The more that we have colleague and leader engagement, the more successful we will be,” she says. “Wherever you sit in the organization, it has to be a priority for you.”

In the end, Pulles sees community engagement as a necessary responsibility for any company. “As colleagues want to connect more to purpose, community engagement and deciding how best to amplify your efforts meaningfully is important for every company,” she argues. “Every company is a citizen of their community, and of their country. And that gives you a responsibility to lead and to give back.”

About the Experts:

Tyler Lawrence has been the Executive Editor of Ethisphere Magazine since 2017. He is deeply invested in conversations about corporate purpose, ESG, and the future of companies and capitalism in the 21st century.

Joanne F. Pulles serves as Vice-President for Community Engagement at HCA Healthcare. In this role, Joanne leads a team that manages the year round effort to as it relates to the overall philanthropic strategy focused on spreading and scaling high impact community engagement initiatives to across HCA Healthcare’s service sites in 23 states including national partnerships with March of Dimes, the American Red Cross, Jason Foundation and healthcare related not for profit organizations. Joanne also serves as President of The HCA Healthcare Foundation and the founding President of The HCA Healthcare Hope Fund, an employee relief fund. Joanne now serves as the Vice-Chair on the Board.

Sherri Neal is Chief Diversity Officer for HCA Healthcare and is responsible for leading the design, development and implementation of diversity, inclusion, equity and cultural competence strategy and programs. Since joining the company in 2006, she has been a champion of creating a culture of inclusion through thought leadership, strategic direction and creative business solutions and has worked collaboratively to create initiatives that positively impact policies, practices, processes and people. The company received top innovation honors from Diversity Journal for the BRAVE Conversations program as well as for Conscious Inclusion training, developed under her leadership.

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