Let’s face it: Few people like tests. Our earliest memories of school may include the sweaty palms, perspiration and self-doubt that arises the moment we hear about a test, assessment, scorecard or anything that measures our performance. Such anxiety haunts some of us decades later.

Was I as prepared as I could have been? Did I answer every question correctly? What if I spent more time on that one question? What will my answers say about my team’s performance?

That range of emotions, coupled with defensive posturing about the fairness of any assessment, can be immobilizing. Sometimes, it will push us to opt out of participation.

Right now, AHA and IFDHE have a survey available that’s designed to benchmark the hospital field’s progress on health equity, diversity and inclusivity. And though this tool or instrument is an important data point to uncover where the field is in its journey toward advancing equity, we know those feelings of anxiety may surface/resurface as a result of this assessment. In times of anxiety, however, we find our footing by understanding why we’re asked to evaluate ourselves, our teams and our organizations.

Just like progress in school or your job, progress in equity is worth tracking. But equity can be a sensitive subject, and the benchmarks on which we rely can be nebulous and overwhelming. Being measured, especially against peers, produces anxiety, and that’s especially true for something — in this case, equity — where a leader’s accountability is becoming more visible and positioned as essential to an organization’s delivery of care and effective operations.

Maybe it’s time we think differently about “benchmarks.” Maybe it’s time we consider benchmarks and surveys as strategic learning opportunities and not punitive obligations. Maybe reconsider if equity is something we need to be in competition over. Maybe we just accept and manage the vulnerability inherent in exposing ourselves with data (quantitative and qualitative). Benchmark surveys can be our tools not our toils.

Here are a few coping strategies for “benchmark anxiety”:

View benchmarking as an opportunity for strategic learning. Benchmark surveys allow organizations, with a degree of accuracy, to invest with precision in those areas that compromise their mission, values and operations. Using data to strategically invest in equity enhancements demonstrates a winning attitude.

Make realistic, organizational self-appraisals. No two hospitals or organizations are alike. There are numerous factors that impact what we can do at any given moment on any given initiative. But if we take stock of our own internal outcome data, not just the activities calendar, you can make a fair appraisal of your own set of circumstances. Many systems may draw different conclusions about the success of their equity efforts if they measured themselves solely against their counterparts, as opposed to what’s realistic given their resources and population.

Don’t be afraid to talk about what you learn. Create a benchmark communications strategy. Manage expectations in your organization by communicating what the data can and cannot convey. Just as the SAT is not an intelligence test, a benchmark survey is not an indicator of quality — think of it as a
progress report. It simply offers the opportunity to direct efforts to improve your equity journey. Don’t be afraid to have open conversations about what your results mean.

Remember trending upwards is better than flat lines. Benchmarks are snapshots of a moment in time — and only tell the story of that moment. The most important measure of advancing equity is a trend line. Your organization’s trajectory is the most significant indicator of change over time.

Be patient but persistent. Structural barriers in policy and practices were not developed in a day, nor will they be dismantled in a day. Dismantling structures that compromise equity takes time, but it should not take a lifetime. Your journey, and your progress, is your own and should be viewed as such. Ultimately accountability for the speed of progress is on the leader, the team and the resources allocated. But start with data.

The biennial benchmark survey was built as your starting point. It’s meant to give us the data we need to support hospitals and health systems through policies and resources, as well as empower our thought leaders to develop practical solutions to our shared challenges. However, data alone isn’t the solution. But its collection allows us to diagnose and properly treat a problem. Data collection tools like surveys create opportunities to not only assess the challenge, but to provide a precise treatment plan for the symptoms of structural barriers that inhibit organizations’ abilities to eliminate health disparities and advance health equity.

One last piece of wisdom. There is a risk a leader takes every time they look in the mirror. They may uncover a blemish. But blemishes are part of life. If we take up AHA’s statement that racism is a public health threat, then our organizations are in many ways obligated to play our part in eradicating this social disease — that’s a blemish worth addressing, and no amount of anxiety should hinder us from taking actions.

NOTE: The biennial benchmark survey is now available through March 15. For questions related to your participation in the survey, please contact AHA’s survey support team at surveysupport@aha.org.

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