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The NHS Must Care About Diversity If It Cares About Patients

16/07/2014 16:37 BST | Updated 15/09/2014 10:59 BST

The lack of non-white faces running the NHS isn't a new issue. It's been a problem for many years.

What is new is a chief executive making a lack of diversity a priority on their watch rather than mentioning it on the way out.

So the fact Simon Stevens has pledged to tackle the issue is a positive move.

In my personal view, this isn't a race issue. Instead, it's about delivering the best patient care possible and that can only happen with an appropriate NHS leadership.

It's not about whether you care about race but if you care about patients, not just in hospitals but in primary care and community services for example.

The recent report by Roger Kline at Middlesex University shows a lack of diversity in the workforce which delivers patient-facing services, and this results in poor treatment for people from black and minority ethnic (BME) groups.

We're ten years on since the launch of the NHS race equality plan. Yet his findings reveal that the proportion of staff from BME backgrounds appointed to NHS trust boards has fallen since 2006.

Kline highlights a direct correlation between poor diversity and poor treatment of BME staff and patient care.

This impacts on how services are designed and managed- and ultimately on patient care.

It's fair to say this would have a major impact in say Lewisham where BME groups make up around a third of the population.

If you didn't have a black member on an NHS management body in this London borough then it's highly likely that the care issues of the local BME population wouldn't be addressed or even seen as operational priorities.

This isn't about black people whinging- the Kline report makes that absolutely clear.

Too many white faces in the NHS isn't Simon Stevens problem though. It's your problem if you're a senior manager with influence over appointments.

So what are the solutions? For a start, the graduate entry scheme for the NHS needs to be looked at.

The NHS comes in the top three choices for graduates which is a fantastic accolade.

But we need to look at what is happening at that level which means graduates from BME communities aren't getting onto management courses or applying for them.

The NHS has a Leadership Academy and I'd ask them why are so many leaders in our health service white?

If they haven't got an answer then they've got a problem.

What we don't want is the NHS to go out and recruit people from BME communities then not train them and keep them out of networks.

Recruiting people is one thing. Keeping them and nurturing their talents is another- BME people need to feel included.

My approach wouldn't be to force diversity deliberately.

It would be to appoint competent people but not to put barriers in the way of BME applicants.

And to monitor and hold leadership to account for failing to recruit leaders who represent the population.

We need to recruit for aptitude and attitude- not just for experience and connections- and that way we will start to recruit from a wider pool of talent.

Explaining the lack of BME representation at leadership level is difficult. Either it's saying people aren't competent or that the system has been set up to exclude them-or to put them off.

Anyone who works in NHS knows there is a closed language, system and network, and breaking through these barriers is very hard. But we must to ensure the people using the NHS get the best support possible and that means leadership that is representative and competent.

I welcome Simon Steven's swift action on diversity. But let's not resort to handwringing instead of taking action.

This is a serious issue that requires our full focus. Not something we should think about if we've got a spare moment.