Trailblazing Advocate president ready to face health industry challenges
Being the only person of color in a corporate board room isn't unusual for Dia Nichols.
For the last two years, the Inverness resident has served as president of the Central Chicagoland Patient Service Area and Advocate Lutheran General Hospital in Park Ridge - joining a small field of hospital executives who are people of color. The 49-year-old recently took the helm as Advocate Health Care's first Black president.
"It's exciting," said Nichols, acknowledging his trailblazing achievement.
While a junior at South Carolina State University, Nichols decided to pursue a career in the health care industry. After hearing about how poorly his Black grandmother was treated at a South Carolina hospital emergency room for "whites only," he aimed to change how people of color receive care.
Nichols earned a graduate degree in health administration from Indiana University. He is a Fellow of the American College of Healthcare Executives.
Attending his first health care executives conference years ago, Nichols said, "There weren't a lot of folks that looked like me."
Nichols spent 18 years working for HCA Healthcare, where he was one of four Black CEOs within the organization. He joined the 329-bed Amita Health Alexian Brothers Medical Center in Elk Grove Village as its president and CEO in March 2019.
Over the years, Nichols has been intentional about building connections and mentoring other health care executives of color. Today, he is among eight Black health care leaders in the nation to complete ELEVATE, a leadership and development initiative founded by Black senior health executives.
"They're becoming more and more diverse, the communities that we're serving," Nichols said. "Because our employee base is becoming more and more diverse, we've got a specific focus (on) how many leaders in our hospitals are persons of color. We define leader as anyone from a supervisor/managerial level up through to CEO, and even onto the board level or governing council level."
According to a 2022 American Hospital Association survey of more than 900 hospitals and health systems, the percentage of boards with at least one non-Caucasian member rose from 58% in 2018 to 68% in 2022. Members representing a historically underrepresented group increased to 21%.
At Advocate Health Care, Nichols is responsible for overseeing 10 hospitals statewide including two children's campuses, and more than 250 care sites. It is the largest health system in Illinois and one of the state's largest private employers. Ten system hospitals recently were named to the U.S. News & World Report "Best Hospitals" list.
Nichols said among his goals is improving safety and health outcomes, the patient experience, and team member and physician engagement. That includes addressing critical issues such as nursing and physician burnout coming out of the COVID-19 pandemic, he said.
"I'm going to get out and about (among) our hospitals ... our communities and visit, and do a lot of listening," Nichols said. "We've seen (turnover) really impact our hospitals and our campuses over the last several years. We've had a specific focus on how to curb that."
Partnering with nursing schools to educate students about what to expect once they graduate working in a clinical environment, reviewing pay and benefits, student loan reimbursement, and allowing flexible staffing are among the strategies to help improve employee retention, Nichols said.
"We focus a lot on onboarding as we have new nurses joining us," Nichols said, "making them feel a part of the family and supporting them. Ultimately, that leads to kind of curtailing the burnout."
Advocate is expanding its outpatient footprint in communities to address a greater shift from inpatient care to ambulatory services closer to home for patients, Nichols said.
Ongoing projects include:
• A $15 million Advocate Medical Office Building and Immediate Care Center at Randall Road in South Elgin, expected to open in early 2024.
• A $30 million Advocate Medical Office Building, including primary and specialty care offices, imaging, lab and pharmacy services in Lakemoor, expected to be completed by the end of 2024.
Telehealth, which gained popularity during the pandemic, also has stuck and helped increase patient access to physicians.
"That has absolutely taken off, and that's really a trend," Nichols said. "The question is how can we use AI in really helping as we chart the future for health care? How can we become a little bit better and not necessarily lean on historic processes?"