Dr. Sharon Nicholson Harrell has been providing dental care to underserved children through FirstHealth Dental Clinics for more than 20 years, but she’s also been working hard as the system’s first chief diversity officer.
Harrell accepted the additional role in January 2021 and has since established FirstHealth’s Inclusion Council, composed of 23 people with a variety of diverse backgrounds from multiple departments throughout all of FirstHealth, including physicians, managers, clinicians, and front-line staff. The purpose of the Inclusion Council is to help mold the system’s efforts in the areas of diversity, equity and inclusion.
“Given the diverse cultures, age, gender, sexual orientation, spiritual beliefs, socioeconomic status and languages of FirstHealth’s patients, families, staff, visitors, vendors and volunteers, it is vital that we recognize, value and promote diversity, equity and inclusion throughout our organization,” FirstHealth CEO Mickey Foster said. “Understanding that each individual is unique, and appreciating those differences, makes us stronger and allows for a more vibrant health care community.”
Harrell said she looks forward to helping Foster achieve his goal of making FirstHealth the best place to work in health care. “While there are many strategies to achieve that goal, ensuring that employees feel respected, accepted, valued, and empowered is a key component,” Harrell said.
The goal of an inclusive environment extends beyond employees. “FirstHealth is working to create a culture of excellence in which all patients, families, visitors, vendors, and volunteers feel connected, treated fairly and safe, and where differences are both celebrated and supported.”
Harrell said FirstHealth’s continued efforts to weave diversity, equity and inclusion into the patient experience will provide culturally responsive care to patients and support for families.
The efforts also apply to workforce development and FirstHealth’s goals to deliver fair and equal access to care in all the communities it serves. “We want to recruit and retain a highly talented and accomplished diverse workforce by appreciating the values, experiences and abilities of everyone we employ,” Harrell said.
“We also hope to educate and engage staff in learning opportunities that foster awareness and appreciation for how diversity, inclusion, and a sense of belonging positively impacts our system. At the end of the day, that inclusive approach will also allow us to better focus on our core purpose: To Care for People.”
Harrell joined FirstHealth in 1998 as the inaugural director of dental care, and since then the system has provided comprehensive dental care to more than 29,000 underserved patients up to 21 years of age.
Harrell received her dental degree from the University of North Carolina School of Dentistry in 1987 where she also serves as an adjunct professor, and she completed an Advanced General Dentistry Residency at the University of Maryland Dental School in 1988.
She obtained her Master's in Public Health training at the University of North Carolina Gillings School of Global Public Health in 1990 and has achieved Fellowship in the Academy of General Dentistry, the Pierre Fauchard Academy, the International College of Dentists, and most recently, the Academy of Dentistry International. Harrell is currently in the process of attaining the credential of Certified Diversity Executive.