Thursday, December 9, 2021
Dec. 9, 2021

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Seattle Children’s pledges to earn back trust and increase focus on diversity, following inquiry into racial disparities

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SEATTLE — Seattle Children’s pledged Wednesday to become the “anti-racist organization you expect us to be,” apologizing to patients and families, pledging to earn trust and promising changes ranging from new investments in a community clinic to a greater focus on diversity to ending a hospital security practice that brought disproportionate attention to Black patients and families.

The hospital’s release of a 21-page action plan comes as Seattle Children’s continues to feel the sting from the November resignation of a highly regarded pediatrician, who cited institutional racism as the reason for his exit. The wave of public criticism that followed included a months-long independent investigation into the hospital’s policies and practices. The result came Wednesday, with the hospital telling the community how it will do better.

“This has been, and will continue to be, a challenging time for Seattle Children’s but I believe we will meet this moment and become the anti-racist organization that our workforce, patients and families expect and deserve us to be,” CEO Dr. Jeff Sperring wrote in a statement.

In the plan, the hospital vowed, among other things, to abolish its “Code Purple” system, which staff use to call for security and a mental health professional when they feel there is unsafe or threatening behavior. According to a Seattle Times analysis this spring of data from the hospital’s inpatient and observation units, Seattle Children’s had called security on Black patients at twice the rate of white patients since late 2014.

The hospital said this week it would replace the Code Purple system with an “equitable and anti-racist structure that is co-created with Seattle Children’s workforce and families.”

Seattle Children’s also plans to invest “more meaningfully” in its Odessa Brown Children’s Clinic — a community clinic in Seattle’s Central District, where Dr. Ben Danielson, the physician whose resignation and criticism sparked the probe, had been medical director.

Hospital officials Wednesday also committed to linking executive compensation to achieving the outcomes identified in the new plan.

In the face of public pressure over Danielson’s departure, the hospital hired in January former U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder and his Washington, D.C.-based law firm, Covington & Burling. In investigating institutional racism at the hospital, the firm heard from more than 1,000 people.

At the beginning of August, Seattle Children’s released the findings and recommendations from Covington & Burling’s investigation — though it took some pressure from prominent local figures and members of the public calling for transparency. In a summary of the 11 findings, Covington & Burling found that while Seattle Children’s had improved its racial and ethnic diversity, “racial disparities persist in leadership positions, promotions and voluntary terminations.”

In response, the hospital Wednesday announced its plan for a phased approach to the law firm’s recommendations.

Within 18 months, it plans to develop explicit accountability guidelines and an audit system focused on equity, diversity and inclusion; launch a health equity, diversity and inclusion council to organize related activities; require all board members to complete anti-racism training annually; and create a structure of transparency and accountability that supports OBCC.

The hospital also says it plans to further efforts to diversify its board racially and ethnically, anticipating that within three years, its board diversity will more closely match patient diversity.

Now, of the hospital’s 23 board members, about 70% are white, 13% are Black, about 9% are Asian and about 9% are Hispanic/Latino. Meanwhile, about 46% of Seattle Children’s patients are white, about 18% are Hispanic/Latino, about 10% are Asian, about 6% are Black and about 6% are mixed race. About 11% identify as either another race or ethnicity or their race is unknown.

Within three years, the hospital says it will create more employee and career mentorship opportunities, including a candidate pipeline and retention strategies.

The hospital’s longer term goals include eliminating disparities in hiring, onboarding, evaluation, correction action and retention, and integrating anti-racism trainings into learning and development programs. Seattle Children’s also plans to create faster, real-time feedback and customer service strategies, better engage with community partners and assess its data collection systems for patients’ experience surveys.

“We conclude by expressing our gratitude to everyone who came forward publicly and through the Assessment Committee’s anonymous process to share their experience,” Sperring and Susan Betcher, the chair of the hospital’s board of trustees, said in the Wednesday statement. “You have helped us better understand where we have fallen short and accelerated our response to these issues.”

The plan did not satisfy all community members and organizations, including coalition King County Equity Now, which called the proposal a “PR move aimed at appeasing donors.”

KCEN has listed its demands of the hospital, which include redirecting funding to Black community health clinics — like the Tubman Center for Health & Freedom and African American Health Board — ceding ownership of the Odessa Brown clinic to Black community ownership; and immediately firing Sperring and Betcher.

“None of the above actions have been taken,” the organization said in a statement Wednesday. “Instead, offering toothless items like make ‘unequivocal’ statements and ‘listen more’ further reveal the deep-divide between SCH and Black community, and SCH’s lack of institutional leadership to bridge it.”

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