A new survey from the executive recruiting firm Witt/Kieffer finds that while health care leaders increasingly believe a diverse workforce is a key component to institutional success, progress in achieving that goal, especially in diversifying the ranks of top leadership, remains a challenge.

The survey — conducted in partnership with the AHA's Institute for Diversity in Health Management, Asian Health Care Leaders Association, National Association of Health Services Executives and the National Forum for Latino Healthcare Executives — found that two-thirds of respondents say having a culturally diverse workforce can improve patient satisfaction. And 46 percent of respondents believe diversity on staff improves clinical outcomes; 39 percent say it ultimately improves hospitals' bottom lines. More than half of the 470 respondents were CEOs, C-suite executives or vice presidents.

I recently talked with Jim Gauss, senior vice president at Witt/Kieffer, who said the survey indicates for the first time widespread acceptance of the notion that a diverse workforce is key to every aspect of running a successful health care organization.

"For them to clearly indicate there's a clinical and business case for having this body of work inside your organization … it's very safe to say that the message has gotten through," Gauss says.

In particular, Gauss believes that the provisions of the Affordable Care Act compelling providers to improve quality of care for all patients or face reimbursement penalties have heightened the stakes for hospitals, who are already serving an increasingly diverse patient base. New Joint Commission guidelines around communication and cultural competence have also played a role, he said.

However, the study wasn't uniformly sunny. Only 13 percent of respondents believe the minority leadership gap has been closed — including 24 percent of Caucasians, 21 percent of Hispanics, 16 percent of Asians and 6 percent of African-Americans. In addition, only 14 percent of minorities believe that minorities receive equal consideration for leadership positions, compared with 70 percent of Caucasians.

There's also a significant difference of opinion identifying the reason for barriers to success at closing the gap. While a lack of commitment by the board or top hospital leadership were the top reasons identified by minority respondents, Caucasian respondents were more likely to point to a lack of diverse candidates or access to those candidates.

Gauss acknowledged the stubborn persistence of the minority leadership gap, adding that a growing group of providers have made significant progress in the last decade to diversify their leadership team.

"There are really many more health systems and medical centers that have embraced this work over the last five to 10 years," Gauss says.

Send me your thoughts on how hospitals can develop a more diverse leadership team to hbush@healthforum.com, and I may feature them in an upcoming column.