Many organizations have vocalized the expansion of their diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) efforts in recent years. Stormont Vail Health, however, has prioritized behind-the-scenes action over publicity.
“We did the opposite of what a lot of companies did,” says David Villanueva, the Topeka-based healthcare system’s director of employee relations, employee health, and diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI). “We weren’t flashy; we didn’t do a hashtag or change our logo. We asked our team members what was important. They told us that doing the meaningful things on the back-end was more important than going for that surface-level, visual representation.”
Now, Villanueva wants to highlight some of those notable changes, which include reimagining the design of team member benefits, introducing system-wide processes, and ensuring the gender pronouns of his team and patients are recorded and respected properly.
On a day-to-day basis, Villanueva oversees the engagement, recognition, and employee life cycle at Stormont Vail. He also leads a group that helps other team members navigate workplace injuries, vaccinations, and wellness. But DEI really underscores his passion for people.
“Stormont Vail has consistently been practicing DEI work before I got here, but I was able to bring everyone together who was engaging in DEI work, formalize the program, and work to provide some measures of success,” he explains. “DEI is about having systems and processes in place to ensure we are creating the most inclusive, belonging, and equitable environment possible with team members and our community. With that, we also strive to understand and accept diversity of opinion and thought.”
Stormont Vail partners with Press Ganey to better understand the patient journey and drive truly human-centric healthcare experiences.
“We did the opposite of what a lot of companies did. . . . [Our team members] told us that doing the meaningful things on the back-end was more important than that surface-level visual representation.”David Villanueva
“Whether big or small, every interaction with a Stormont Vail patient, physician, nurse, or nonclinical staff member is an opportunity to leave a memorable, positive impact on their lives,” said Greg Stecklein, managing director at Press Ganey. “Together, we’ve developed a continuous listening strategy that aligns real-time feedback across almost every single touchpoint to ensure Stormont Vail is offering frictionless experiences that improve the overall health of the Topeka community.”
Additionally, Stormont Vail has joined all three of Press Ganey’s industry-wide initiatives—Safety 2025: Accelerate to Zero Harm, Workforce Well-Being Collaborative, and Equity Partnership—to work collaboratively with colleagues across the US to tackle the most pressing healthcare issues, such as patient safety, burnout, and health equity.’
“They’re bringing forth remarkable ideas that set them apart on a national stage,” Stecklein adds.
Villanueva finds the Stormont Vail team very open to DEI concepts. “We have received so many requests from leaders throughout our organization, who were just thirsting for more information about DEI,” he notes.
He states the want and curiosity has always been there, but with no formal program or DEI subject-matter expert, it might have been difficult for leaders to know whom to turn to when questions or situations arose. “As healthcare workers, we already have a calling and a sense of duty to help people, no matter who they are or where they come from,” he says. “We’re proud that our whole team, including all generations, are receptive and open, which may come by virtue of what healthcare is and who Stormont Vail strives to be.”
Villanueva emphasizes to employees during orientation and training sessions that Stormont Vail, like so many other organizations, isn’t immune to systemic problems. “We’re not perfect; nobody is. But what we do have is the self-awareness to know when we’re not,” he says. “When challenges arise, we don’t try to deny it. Instead, we work collaboratively to bring people together to problem solve and figure out how to improve.”
In many cases, the resulting initiatives center the experiences of patients from historically marginalized groups. Stormont Vail had transgender patients who were traveling thirty minutes to an hour away to receive gender-affirming care. “They believed that other health systems had more comprehensive care than we were offering,” Villanueva says.
To find out how to make Stormont Vail a provider of choice, patients were invited to a symposium called Courageous Conversations and asked to speak about their reasons for leaving the system. “We listened to these patients and worked with them to create education and implement incremental changes throughout the entire patient cycle, so that this specific patient group could have a better experience,” he explains.
Villanueva and the DEI team organized more Courageous Conversation symposiums with other specific patient groups—people with disabilities and victims of sexual assault—and ones that addressed race and culture bias. The symposiums benefit patients and employees alike by establishing a shared framework from which to move forward.
The team that Villanueva attributes much of Stormont Vail’s success is its IDEA (Inclusion, Diversity, Equity, and Access) Committee. One particularly impactful patient-facing project is the organization’s newly developed interpreter program that closes the gap between the provider and the patient if there is a language barrier. “Instead of calling a third-party language line, which provided such a more impersonal experience, ” he elaborates, “being able to tap into our own team member’s unique skill set would really be beneficial into building that relationship and trust among our patients and community.”
More specifically, Stormont Vail is investing in the interpreter program by paying for team members to attend interpreter school. He hopes in the next few years, Stormont Vail can then move into Phase Two of the program, which would connect bilingual community members with scholarship opportunities to pursue a career in healthcare.
“DEI is about having systems and processes in place to ensure we are creating the most inclusive, belonging, and equitable environment possible with team members and our community.”David Villanueva
“That’s DEI in action right there,” Villanueva says. “By bringing people into our organization who may not have historically had the opportunity to work in a healthcare setting as a registered nurse or technician, providing them this opportunity will assist with our labor shortages across the country, while at the same time renewing our DEI commitment.”
When it comes to internal DEI measures, David Villanueva points to re-evaluation of current benefit design and explorations of affordable childcare models as exemplifying the organization’s commitment to supporting all employees. Stormont Vail’s Wellpower Wage of fifteen dollars an hour––more than twice the Kansas minimum wage––also provides a living wage for our team members.
Furthermore, Stormont Vail is moving forward with an “emerging leaders” program led by the Organizational Development team. “We wanted to empower employees of all backgrounds by giving them ample opportunity to refine their skills and develop as leaders,” he says. “The program is designed to also have a big focus on representation among mentees. We really want to have diverse people being mentored into leadership positions, which gives them a seat at the table, because this DEI effort now will help to solidify our future.”
When it comes to succession planning, Stormont Vail wants to hire the best people person for the role: someone who has the necessary leadership skills and emotional intelligence and can be taught the functional skills.
“At a time when Press Ganey is seeing three in ten nurses at risk of leaving their employers, Stormont Vail has consistently maintained employee engagement levels and continues to listen to staff from all levels of the organization—not just driving solutions from the top down,” Stecklein notes.
As David Villanueva sees it, this newer method is less hierarchical in its framework and provides a better, more holistic leader of people. It reflects the DEI-forward culture he hopes to continue cultivating at Stormont Vail in the future. A future that, for both team members and the patients in their care, looks undoubtedly bright.