Photo by Lee Pellegrini

Today, a search for “diversity, equity and inclusion” on the job site yields more than 11,000 results in the Boston area, but Juan Fernando Lopera ’99 entered the field when that number was closer to zero. It was 2015, and the Carroll School of Management graduate was working for Tufts Health Plan while devoting his spare time to projects focused on increasing opportunities for people of color. He approached his boss about a new role that would allow him to do both, and became the organization's first diversity officer as a result. This summer, Lopera was named to another inaugural role, this time as chief diversity, equity, and inclusion officer at Beth Israel Lahey Health—a network of 12 hospitals and more than 80 practices that employs 36,000 and serves more than a million patients every year. Two months into his new position, BC News caught up with Lopera to discuss his rise in the field and how current events have shifted the conversation around healthcare equity. 

How have your first eight weeks gone? 

It's been a whirlwind of experiences. I’ve spent the majority of my time visiting hospitals  and there’s such an in-depth demand for this work, but also a great degree of anxiety to see progress, which, to me, is fuel for the fire. The murder of George Floyd and COVID’s disproportionate impact on Black and Latinx communities, have really made this not just a moment, but a movement, and people are interested in having a path forward to see impact.

What are your top priorities? 

People, patients, and community. For people, striving for representation at all levels, mirroring the communities we serve. For patients, aiming to transform care delivery to dismantle barriers to equitable health outcomes. For economic inclusion, working to address wealth inequality by providing more opportunities for diverse vendors and suppliers in our region. Of course, in all three of these areas we need to measure our impact so that, five years from now, we will know if we actually made a difference.

How has the current political climate impacted your work? Have you found that some of the issues you're working on have become more politicized? 

It’s something that keeps me up a bit, recognizing that this topic of diversity, equity, and inclusion is a journey and that everyone is on a different path. It can be divisive. When communicating with staff, my approach is always anchoring back to whatever it is that you're in business for. We're in business to provide better care, and I think we as a system can transform care delivery by dismantling barriers to equitable health outcomes and by becoming a premier place to recruit, retain, and develop diverse talent. 

What was your reaction to the health disparities brought to light by the COVID-19 pandemic?

When I saw what was happening in Chelsea, Brockton, and Lawrence—that cases were significantly higher by multiples of the state average—I was not surprised at all because of my own lived experience as an immigrant. Growing up, we shared an apartment in Boston with eight other people and my family was part of the essential workforce, working two shifts and sometimes three different jobs. Asthma was something we were predisposed to just through insufficient heat during winter and AC in the summer. Everything that transpired last year brought me back to being that 12-year-old living in those conditions. 

If we want to tackle health inequality, we have to start with the social determinants of health. We could have the most advanced healthcare system and the most amazing technology, but until we go upstream and begin to address issues like housing and access to services, I think we're going to be confronted with these outcomes over and over again.

What’s the first step to addressing this? 

Part of the solution is just having more transparency. Sometimes it takes a pandemic to really roll up your sleeves and do stuff we've never done before. During COVID, unlike any other time, we were able to collect better data around race in the city and set up better tools to analyze the disparities. We could, at any given point, look at any zip code or race index, and see where the COVID impact was most felt. 

​I think a similar type of infrastructure is needed for just health inequity in aggregate. I would like for there to be a way for us to measure a health equity score—a composite of measures of quality broken down by race—where we can track the impact of an initiative or policy change on real lives. 

You started out on the business side of healthcare. How does that experience inform your work in diversity, equity, and inclusion? 

I've always approached this work as a moral imperative, but also as a business imperative. I came from health insurance, so the business imperative there was very clear—there was a big missed opportunity when our customers were not as diverse as the demographics where we did business, so we seized that opportunity. 

I’m applying that same frame of thinking here on the care delivery side, looking at our entire system, the current patient demographics, and projecting how the area we serve is going to continue to increase in diversity. The reality is that healthcare capabilities are just not keeping up with that growth and that demand for cultural competence, for language access, and for innovative ideas to meet the needs of different populations. It's something that, as an industry, we need to transform and innovate around.

When you graduated from BC, did you ever see yourself going into this type of work? 

I had no idea what I was going to do after BC so I entered consulting and quickly learned that I had a passion for the mission behind healthcare. My career has been three-quarters just immersed in the business side of healthcare but diversity, equity, and inclusion has always been part of who I am, based on my own background as someone who struggled to make it and who was given such an amazing opportunity by BC.

When I graduated and started my professional career, I was always doing a lot of work outside of the four walls of whatever organization I was involved with, as a way to give back. I think BC instilled that in me—the desire to make an impact that's beyond your regular call of duty. 

What aspect of your work do you find most rewarding? 

For me, it's having interactions with folks that seem small but could make a difference in that person’s career. I’ve benefited from that my whole professional life. Sometimes it was just seeing someone who went through similar struggles, or had similar lived experience to me, and thinking, ‘Wow, that person made it, that could be me one day.’ I always prioritize individual exchanges because it’s remarkable the kind of impact they can have. 

What advice would you give to someone interested in diversity, equity, and inclusion as a career path? 

I think my biggest skill for doing this work has been blending the business knowledge with the lived experience. ​I'm an expert in healthcare who happens to be very passionate about diversity, equity, and inclusion, and I think that mix is so important. When I engage in diversity discussions, I'm at the table with an understanding of how to run the business and then using my diversity lens to say, ‘Oh, did we think about it this way?’

To a young person interested in DEI, I would say take advantage of opportunities to learn about this topic, which is such a growing space, but always consider immersing yourself in and understanding the business you’re in. Whether it's for-profit or not-for-profit, there's always a diversity implication, but you have to be grounded in what it is that you produce to be effective. 

Alix Hackett | University Communications | August 2021