Opinion | DCH is showing its true colors

Hospital administrators don’t reflect the community they serve, and they show no interest in fixing it.

On June 11, 1963 Alabama Governor George Wallace stood in the door of The University of Alabama’s Foster Auditorium to block the entrance of Vivian Malone Jones and James Hood, two of the first Black students enrolled. Ultimately, it took President John Kennedy federalizing 100 National Guardsmen that day to escort Malone Jones and Hood through the door.

Yet, despite all the racial progress over the last 58 years in the United States, it is still 1963 in the inner circle of power of the Druid City Hospital (DCH) Health System, just one mile away from Foster Auditorium. Although DCH resides in a city that is 50% non-white, no racial minority has occupied the position of chief executive officer, chief operations officer, chief medical officer, chief nursing officer, chief financial officer, vice president of medical affairs or general counsel in at least 40 years. Yes, the DCH Board of Directors has one Black member now, and it usually has had one through the years. But having one Black member on a nine-member board, when viewed through the lens of the demographic diversity of Tuscaloosa and West Alabama, is clearly tokenism. That’s unacceptable.

Having one Black member on a nine-member board… is clearly tokenism.”

Furthermore, one recent move by the DCH administration illustrates the lack of racial progress by the health system. In 2019, DCH chose Sound Physicians, a healthcare group out of Tacoma, Washington, that made a bid of more than $2 million to provide physician services in two medical intensive care units at DCH Regional. In choosing Sound, they rejected the physicians of Tuscaloosa Lung, Critical Care & Sleep, P.C. who had provided the same services at no expense to DCH for over 40 years. Sound Physicians, the largest provider of inpatient physician services in the United States, has 14 upper-level executives, but not one belongs to a racial minority group. The five physicians of the local group Tuscaloosa Lung, Critical Care & Sleep, P.C. that lost the contract bid are all people of color.

Now, in another rejection of diversity, DCH intends to not renew the contract for hospitalist services of DCH Northport with Pinnacle Physician Group, LLP, a local group of 12 physicians of which seven are Black. Furthermore, three of the four top-level management positions in Pinnacle are occupied by Black physicians. DCH suddenly announced its intention on January 20, 2021 to not renew just one day after it awarded Pinnacle a bonus check for exceeding performance expectations DCH had for Pinnacle under the contract.

Since 1916, DCH has saved many lives in West Alabama. DCH has a strong record of service and of giving back to the community. However, DCH must change. Its track record of racial progress is abysmal. It is 2021, and this community deserves more from those public institutions that annually receive millions of tax dollars from its citizens. 

Here are three steps DCH should take:

  1. DCH should within 12 months diversify the top four upper-level executive leadership positions of chief executive officer, chief operations officer, chief medical officer and vice president of medical affairs. These positions have been held exclusively by white males. These specific changes at the highest organizational level will demonstrate a serious commitment by DCH to fundamentally change its racial relations.
  2. DCH should declare an end to the era of one non-white Board member. DCH should aim to have at least four people of color on the DCH Board within the next 12 months. The four longest-serving members should ultimately step out of the doorway and welcome new leadership.
  3. DCH should preferentially partner with talented and capable businesses that have diversity in their leadership. In 2019, DCH failed in this respect by rejecting the physicians of Tuscaloosa Lung, Critical Care & Sleep, P.C. DCH should avoid that same mistake in 2021. DCH should renew its present contract with Pinnacle Physician Group, LLP at Northport. Look at the faces of Pinnacle. They are the faces of Tuscaloosa and West Alabama. DCH should eagerly embrace the talented diversity of Pinnacle, not cast it aside.

To some, these ideas will seem radical. But the truly radical notion is that for the past four decades not one person of color has been in the true corridors of power in an institution that serves a city where 50% are racial minorities. It is time for DCH to do the right thing.

Dr. Elizabeth Marshall-Smith completed her Family Medicine Residency at the University of Alabama in Tuscaloosa in 2013, where she served as Chief Resident her final year. She presently serves as the Chairwoman of the Department of Family Medicine at DCH Regional Medical Center. She also is the Chief Operating Officer of Pinnacle Physician Group, LLP.