Written by David McNamee
Male registered nurses are earning more than female registered nurses across settings, specialties and positions, and this pay gap has not narrowed over time, says a new analysis of salary trends published in JAMA.
Although the salary gap between men and women has narrowed in many occupations since the introduction of the Equal Pay Act 50 years ago, say the study authors, pay inequality persists in medicine and nursing.
Previous studies have found that male registered nurses (RNs) have higher salaries than female registered RNs. In their new study, researchers from the University of California, San Francisco, sought to investigate what employment factors could explain these salary differences using recent data.
The researchers analyzed nationally representative data from the last six quadrennial National Sample Survey of Registered Nurses studies (1988-2008; including 87,903 RNs) and data from the American Community Survey (2001-13; including 205,825 RNs). In both studies, the proportion of men in the sample was 7%.
During every year, both of the studies demonstrated that salaries for male RNs were higher than the salaries of female RNs. What is more, the researchers found no significant changes in this pay gap - which averaged as an overall adjusted earnings difference of $5,148 - over the study period.
In ambulatory care the salary gap was $7,678 and in hospital settings it was $3,873. The smallest pay gap was found in chronic care ($3,792) and the largest was in cardiology ($6,034). The only specialty in which no significant pay gap between men and women RNs was detected was orthopedics. The salary difference was also found to extend across the range of positions, including roles such as middle management and nurse anesthetists.
Employers and physicians 'need to examine pay structures'
"The roles of RNs are expanding with implementation of the Affordable Care Act and emphasis on team-based care delivery," the authors write.
"A salary gap by gender is especially important in nursing because this profession is the largest in health care and is predominantly female, affecting approximately 2.5 million women. These results may motivate nurse employers, including physicians, to examine their pay structures and act to eliminate inequities."
The results of a 2010 survey looking at the impact of the economic crisis on nursing salaries published in Nursing Management found that a nurse leader's average salary fell by $4,000 between 2007 and 2010. In the same survey, almost 60% of nurse leaders felt that they were not receiving appropriate compensation for their level of organizational responsibility.
However, that survey found no evidence that workload for nurse leaders had increased. The respondents reported that they were still working the same number of hours per week as they had traditionally and were not responsible for more staff members than before the economic crisis.
"If you thought nursing was immune to the downturn, think again. The poor economy is keeping us working longer than we'd anticipated," said Nursing Management editor-in-chief Richard Hader, "and in addition to wage cuts, organizations are freezing or eliminating retirement benefits, further negatively impacting employee morale."
In a Johns Hopkins Outpatient Center exam room, medical interpreter Julie Barshinger is working with a Spanish patient, a woman in her early 40s with a stocky build and a dark ponytail, who is concerned about complications related to her recent nose surgery.
But first, the woman must complete a medical history form. “¿Qué significa vertigo?” (“What is vertigo?”) she asks, as Barshinger goes through the list of symptoms on the form, verbally interpreting them from English to Spanish. Then later, “No sé qué es un soplo cardiac … ” Barshinger interprets the question — “I don’t know what a heart murmur is” — for the nurse who is preparing a nasal spray for the patient that will allow the doctor to look inside her nose.
“If it doesn’t apply to her, don’t answer it,” the nurse says kindly.
“I just want you to know that I have to interpret everything she says,” explains Barshinger, who is one of 18 full-time interpreters in Johns Hopkins Medicine International’s Language Access Services office. Part of Barshinger’s job is educating providers about her role.
Later, the nurse starts to leave the room to see another patient before the woman has completed her medical history form. “I can’t continue if you’re not in the room with me,” Barshinger says. The patient is consistently giving additional information about her symptoms: She doesn’t see well since her operation; she has some nasal bleeding; she sees the room spinning when she lies down. It’s crucial for Barshinger to communicate these potentially important details to the nurse, who stays in the room, answering questions when needed, until the form is complete.
Throughout the interaction, Barshinger knows little about the full scope of the patient’s health history. But she doesn’t need to know. “I’m not in charge of her care,” she says. “I’m only her voice. I want to make sure her voice is being heard by the right people. I’m also the voice of the provider, so she can communicate the very necessary and important information that she has to the patient.”
While Johns Hopkins, like other hospitals that receive federal funding, has been providing interpretation services for 50 years — since passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which prohibits discrimination based on national origin — requests for interpreters at The Johns Hopkins Hospital have grown dramatically since 2010, jumping from 23,000 to more than 50,000 annually.
This is due in part to the slightly rising limited English proficiency population in Baltimore City, which grew by about 4,000 people between 2000 and 2012, according to the U.S. Census. Today, the hospital also serves more refugees, about 2,500 of whom settled in Baltimore City between 2008 and 2012.
But Susana Velarde, administrator for Language Access Services at Johns Hopkins Medicine International, says the increase in requests is also due to the growing understanding among health care providers that they can do a better job treating their patients with limited English proficiency with the help of interpreters.
Because they prevent communication errors, certified interpreters improve patient safety. A 2012 study in the Journal of General Internal Medicine found that patients with limited English proficiency who did not have access to interpreters during admission and discharge had to stay in the hospital between 0.75 and 1.47 days longer than patients who had an interpreter on both days. Moreover, when the interpreter has 100 hours of medical interpretation training — a qualification that researchers have found is more important than years of experience — they made two-thirds fewer errors than their counterparts with less training, according to a 2012 Annals of Emergency Medicine study.
The Language Access Services office’s full-time interpreters—who speak Spanish, Chinese-Mandarin, Korean, Russian, Arabic and Nepali — participate in an extensive two-year training program, which includes classes, tests and shadowing. Fifty percent of the team is certified; the rest are working toward certification, if available in their language. The office also has 45 medical interpreter floaters, and interpretation services are available 24/7 in person, over the phone or through a video monitor for patients with limited English proficiency who live in the Baltimore area and international residents who come to Johns Hopkins for treatment.
“We are the conduit, but also the clarifier,” says Spanish interpreter Rosa Ryan. “We are not simply repeating words but making sure the message is understood.”
For example, at the end of her visit on the otolaryngology floor, Barshinger walks to the front desk with the ponytailed Spanish woman to help her make a follow-up appointment. With Barshinger interpreting, the woman learns that she must get a Letter of Medical Necessity from her current insurer or change insurance companies before coming back to Johns Hopkins. When the administrator walks away, Barshinger checks in with the woman to make sure she understands the instructions.
“The patient might nod, but the information might not be registering,’” she says. “I try to check for clarification if I sense there is a disconnect.”
Interpreters are also cultural brokers. Yinghong Huang, a Chinese-Mandarin interpreter, remembers when a nurse in labor and delivery tried to give a Chinese patient a cup of ice water. “In China, for a woman who has just delivered a baby, we don’t want her to touch anything cold, let alone ice,” Huang explains. This is one of the many rules that Chinese women abide by for a month to help the body recover from childbirth. With Huang present, providers knew to give the patient hot water with her medicine instead.
Despite the increasing demand for interpreters, their expertise too often goes untapped, says Lisa DeCamp, assistant professor of pediatrics at the school of medicine. She is the lead author of a 2013 Pediatrics study that found that 57 percent of pediatricians who completed national surveys in 2010 still reported using family members as interpreters.
This is a bad practice for many reasons, she says. For one thing, family members often don’t have specialized knowledge of medical terminology. Moreover, both patients and family members may censor information. “If you’re talking about something that is intimate or personal and your son is translating for you, you might not want to disclose something about your sexual activity, your drug use or anything else sensitive that could be contributing to your problem,” says DeCamp, who is also a pediatrician at Johns Hopkins Bayview Medical Center.
Even physicians with basic skills in a particular language should use an interpreter to prevent misunderstandings. “I [know] some high school Spanish, but I’m nowhere near fluent, so I need an interpreter,” says Cynthia Argani, director of labor and delivery at Hopkins Bayview, where about 70 percent of her department’s patient population speaks Spanish. “It’s not fair to the patient not to use one. The message can get skewed.”
DeCamp, who has passed a test certifying her as a bilingual physician, offers a real-life example from the literature that shows how this can happen. A pediatrician with limited Spanish language skills instructed parents to use an antibiotic to treat their child’s ear infection. In Spanish, “if you use the preposition, it really means, ‘put in the ear,’” she says. “So the family was putting the specified amount of amoxicillin that should be taken by mouth in the ear. That child is not going to die from an ear infection, but he’s having pain and a fever, and the family doesn’t have clear instructions on how to provide medication.”
On Barshinger’s rounds, after her otolaryngology visit, she walks at an impressively fast pace to The Charlotte R. Bloomberg Children’s Center, where a mother recognizes her and asks her to be her interpreter. The provider who requested Barshinger’s services is not ready yet, so she has time to help.
A doctor carrying a sheaf of papers joins them in a busy hallway. She points to a long list of care instructions translated into Spanish, then begins to explain them to the mother. Because the doctor is verbally giving the instructions, Barshinger interprets. The mother needs to buy an extra-strength, over-the-counter medication and give her daughter a second medication three times a day, which she will need to “swish and spit,” the doctor says. A third medication will be applied to the daughter’s face two times a day, and a special shampoo is needed to wash her hair. Before an upcoming dentist appointment, she’ll also need to give her daughter three amoxicillin. When the doctor steps away, the mother asks Barshinger a question about her daughter’s dental visit, which Barshinger interprets when the doctor returns.
While interpreting, Barshinger stands to the side of the patient’s mother, allowing the doctor and the mother to face each other and communicate directly with one another. This simple tactic encourages providers to develop a rapport with their patients with limited English proficiency.
The goal? “To make the patient feel like the appointment is with him and not with the interpreter,” says Velarde. “The interpreter is just the voice. We want providers to have a bond with their patients, like they do when everyone is speaking English.”
Tapping the expertise of interpreters doesn’t have to complicate things for physicians, says Lisa DeCamp, a bilingual physician at Johns Hopkins Bayview Medical Center. Her advice for colleagues:
Educate the interpreter about what you’re doing so they’re not going in blind. Say a patient has severe abdominal pain. Providers can quickly explain to the interpreter that the first job is to rule out appendicitis.
Sit across from the patient, with the interpreter standing at the patient’s side, and talk directly to the patient. The goal is for the provider and the patient to feel like they have a relationship with each other despite language barriers. When possible, use short phrases to help the interpreter keep up with the conversation.
Found In Translation
Arabic translator Lina Zibdeh remembers the first time she saw the recommendation in a patient education document that leftover medications should be discarded in used cat litter or coffee grounds.
There isn’t a direct translation for this concept in Arabic, a language that is spoken in different dialects by 22 countries but written in one common form. “It can take hours and extensive research to make sure a concept like this is translated correctly,” says Zibdeh, who translates written materials, such as informed consent forms, welcome packets, care instructions, brochures, video scripts and more. In this case, Zibdeh had to add an additional sentence to explain that medications should be disposed of in this way so they are not enticing to children and pets.
While translation programs like Google Translate are readily available and easy to use, they often produce inaccurate translations, which can confuse patients and lead to poor health outcomes. This is because words in sentences can be organized in different ways from one language to another. Thus, when online programs translate those sentences from, say, English to Chinese, they can change the meaning, says Chinese-Mandarin interpreter and translator Yinghong Huang. Some English words, such as discharge, also have multiple meanings. “It’s very rare for a program to get the right meaning,” Huang says. Even Huang has to use tools, such as her cellphone and an online dictionary, to produce accurate translations.
Along with improving health outcomes, documents that are available in a patient’s own language can make him or her feel more comfortable and secure, says Zibdeh, who organized the American Translators Association’s first webinar for the Arabic Division on Arabic Medical Translation in early 2014. “It helps that patient feel closer to home,” she adds.
By Heather Stringer for Nurse.com
In 2010, the Institute of Medicine issued eight recommendations that dared to transform the nursing profession by 2020. This year marks the midway point for reaching the goals outlined in the report “The Future of Nursing: Leading Change, Advancing Health,” and statistics at halftime offer a glimpse into nursing’s progress so far.
Although the numbers in some areas have altered little in the first few years, infrastructure changes have been set in motion that will lead to more noticeable improvements in the data in the next several years, said Susan Hassmiller, PhD, RN, FAAN, the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation senior adviser for nursing. The RWJF partnered with the IOM to produce the report.
“I am a very impatient person and would like things to move faster, but we have to remember that we are changing social norms with these goals,” Hassmiller said. “We are trying, for example, to convince hospital leaders, nursing students and educational institutions that it is important for nurses to have a baccalaureate degree, and that takes time.”
Hassmiller is referring to Recommendation 4 of the report, which calls academic nurse leaders across all schools of nursing to work together to increase the proportion of nurses with a baccalaureate degree from 50% to 80% by 2020. The most recent data collected from the American Community Survey by the Future of Nursing: Campaign for Action found that the percentage of employed nurses with a bachelor’s degree or higher only climbed 2% between 2010 and 2013. However, Hassmiller suggested the percentage is likely to increase rapidly in coming years because nursing schools have increased capacity to accommodate more students. As a result, the number of nurses enrolled in RN-to-BSN programs skyrocketed between 2010 and 2014, from about 77,000 nurses in 2010 to 130,300 students in 2014, according to the American Association of Colleges of Nursing — a 69% increase.
Campaign for Action leaders also are optimistic about the profession’s ability to approach the 80% goal because nursing schools are beginning to experiment with new models of education, such as bringing BSN programs to community colleges.
Traditionally, students spend at least three years in a community college earning an associate’s degree to become an RN — at least a year for prerequisites and another two to complete the nursing program, Hassmiller said. These RNs may work for a few years before returning to school to earn a BSN — and some may not return at all, said Jenny Landen, MSN, RN, FNP-BC, dean of the School of Health, Math and Sciences at Santa Fe Community College in New Mexico. To avoid losing potential BSN students, leaders from New Mexico’s university and community colleges began meeting to discuss a new paradigm: students who were dually enrolled in a community college and a university BSN program.
The educators started by forming a common statewide baccalaureate curriculum that would be used by all community colleges and universities, Landen said. The educators also discussed how to pool resources, such as offering university courses online at local community colleges. “This opens the opportunity of earning a BSN to people who need to stay in their communities during school,” she said. “They may have family commitments locally, and they can take the baccalaureate degree courses at the community college tuition fee, which is much less expensive.”
Four community colleges in New Mexico have launched dual enrollment programs within the last year. At Santa Fe Community College, there are far more applicants than the program can hold, Landen said. Community colleges and universities in other parts of the country also are working together to create programs in which nursing students can be dually enrolled. In addition to nursing schools buying into the need for more BSN-prepared nurses, there also is evidence that employers are moving toward this new standard as well. According to a study released in February in the Journal of Nursing Administration, the percentage of institutions requiring a BSN when hiring new RNs jumped from 9% to 19% between 2011 and 2013.
So far, the national data related to Recommendation 5 — double the number of nurses with a doctorate by 2020 — suggests there have been minimal changes in the number of employed nurses with a doctorate, yet there has been a significant increase in the number of students pursuing this level of education. According to the JONA article, on average about 3.1% of employed nurses in all institutions had a doctorate in 2011. This rose to 3.6% in 2013. This percentage likely will increase in the coming years because of the proliferation of doctor of nursing practice programs since 2010. These programs are geared for advanced practice RNs who are interested in returning to the clinical setting after earning a doctoral degree. Between 2010 and 2013, the number of students enrolled in DNP programs doubled from just over 7,000 students to more than 14,600. There was a lesser increase in the number of students enrolled in PhD programs, up 12% from 4,600 to 5,100, according to the AACN.
“When the DNP degree became an option, it opened the opportunity of a higher level of education to the working nurse, not the researcher, and that was attractive to many nurses,” said Pat Polansky, MS, RN, director of program development and implementation at the Center to Champion Nursing in America. “Getting a research-based PhD takes longer and not every nurse can do that, so the DNP has become a wonderful option.”
Leaders at the Campaign for Action, however, acknowledge that it is important to find strategies to boost the number of PhD-prepared nurses because the profession needs those nurses in academia and other administrative, research or entrepreneurial roles where they are contributing to the solutions of a transformed healthcare system, Hassmiller said. To encourage more nurses to pursue the path of a PhD, in 2014 the RWJF launched the Future of Nursing Scholars Program, which awards $75,000 per scholar pursuing a PhD. This is matched with $50,000 by the student’s school, and the funds can be used over the course of three years.
In December, the nursing profession will have another opportunity to assess progress on the recommendations when the IOM releases findings from a study that is under way to assess the national impact of the Future of Nursing report. The changes happening in areas such as education are remarkable, Hassmiller said, and she is eagerly anticipating the results from the current IOM study.
“I would never modify the goals because you need something to strive for in order to affect change,” Hassmiller said. “I am extremely encouraged because we have never seen anything like this. For the first time in history, more than half of nurses have a bachelor’s degree, and it is going to keep climbing. The most challenging part has been the number of people that need to be influenced to make the business case as to why it is important, and it is finally happening.”
1) Remove scope-of-practice barriers.
2) Expand opportunities for nurses to lead and diffuse collaborative improvement efforts.
3) Implement nurse residency programs.
4) Increase the proportion of nurses with a baccalaureate degree to 80% by 2020.
5) Double the number of nurses with a doctorate by 2020.
6) Ensure that nurses engage in lifelong learning.
7) Prepare and enable nurses to lead change to advance health.
8) Build an infrastructure for the collection and analysis of interprofessional healthcare workforce data.
© 2015 OnCourse Learning Corporation. All rights reserved.
Melissa and her husband started trying to have a baby right after they got married. But nothing was happening. So they went to a fertility clinic and tried round after round of everything the doctors had to offer. Nothing worked.
"They basically told me, 'You know, you have no chance of getting pregnant,' " says Melissa, who asked to be identified only by her first name to protect her privacy.
But Melissa, 30, who lives in Ontario, Canada, didn't give up. She switched clinics and kept trying. She got pregnant once, but that ended in a miscarriage.
"You just feel like your body's letting you down. And you don't know why and you don't know what you can do to fix that," she says. "It's just devastating."
Melissa thought it was hopeless. Then her doctor called again. This time he asked if she'd be interested in trying something new. She and her husband hesitated at first.
"We eventually decided that we should give it one last shot," she says.
Her doctor is Dr. Robert Casper, the reproductive endocrinologist who runs the Toronto Center for Advanced Reproductive Technology. He has started to offer women a fertility treatment that's not available in the United States, at least not yet. The technique was named Augment by the company that developed it, and its aim is to help women who have been unable to get pregnant because their eggs aren't as fresh as they once were.
Casper likens these eggs to a flashlight that just needs new batteries.
"Like a flashlight sitting on a shelf in a closet for 38 years, there really isn't anything wrong with the flashlight," he says. "But it doesn't work when you try to turn it on because the batteries have run down. And we think that's very similar to what's happening physiologically in women as they get into their 30s."
In human eggs, as in all cells, the tiny structures that work like batteries are called mitochondria. Augment is designed to replace that lost energy, using fresh mitochondria from immature egg cells that have been extracted from the same woman's ovaries.
"The idea was to get mitochondria from these cells to try to, sort of, replace the batteries in these eggs," Casper says.
Here's how it works. A woman trying to get pregnant goes through a surgical procedure to remove a small piece of her ovary, so that doctors can extract mitochondria from the immature egg cells. In a separate procedure, doctors remove some of the woman's mature eggs from her ovaries. They then inject the young mitochondria into the eggs in the lab, along with sperm from the woman's partner; except for adding mitochondria to the mix, the process is the same one that's followed with standard in vitro fertilization. The resulting embryo can then be transferred into her womb.
The extracted mitochondria "look exactly like egg mitochondria," Casper says. "And they're young. They haven't been subjected to mutations and other problems."
So they should have enough power to create a healthy embryo, he says — at least in theory. The company that developed the procedure, OvaScience Inc. of Cambridge, Mass., has reported no births from the procedure so far. The technique adds about $25,000 to the cost of a typical IVF cycle.
OvaScience hopes to eventually bring the technique to infertile couples in the United States. But the Food and Drug Administration has blocked that effort — pending proof that the technique works and is safe. Meanwhile, the firm is already offering the technology in other countries, including the United Arab Emirates, Turkey — and in Canada, at Casper's Toronto clinic.
"We're pretty excited about it," Casper says.
Not everyone in Canada is excited about it. Endocrinologist Neal Mahutte, who heads the Canadian Fertility and Andrology Society, notes that no one knows whether the technique works. And he has many other questions.
"It's a very promising, very novel technique," he says. "It may one day be shown to be of tremendous benefit. But when you amp up the energy in the egg, how much do we really know about the safety of what will follow?"
"Is there a chance that the increased energy source could contribute later to birth defects?" Mahutte wonders. "Or to disorders such as diabetes? Or to problems like cancer? We certainly hope that it would not. But nobody knows at this point."
He and some other experts say it's unethical to offer the procedure to women before those questions have been answered.
"There are processes that are set up to ensure that products which are offered for clinical use in humans have undergone rigorous testing for safety and efficacy, based on well-established scientific and ethical testing criteria," says Ubaka Ogbogu, a bioethicist and health law expert at the University of Alberta. "To circumvent this process is to use humans as guinea pigs for a product that may have serious safety concerns or problems."
Casper defends his decision to offer his patients the treatment, saying a New Jersey fertility clinic briefly tried something similar more than 15 years ago; in that case, he says, the resulting babies seemed fine, and there have been no reports of problems since. In addition, Casper says he has done a fair amount of research on mitochondria.
"I think there's very little chance that there would be any pathological or abnormal results," he says. "So I feel pretty confident this is not going to do any harm."
Casper's first patient to try the technique — Melissa — says she's comfortable relying on the doctor's judgment.
"I think there's always risk with doing any sort of procedure," Melissa says. "IVF — I mean, there was lots of controversy and risk when that first came out. For me, and from what I've discussed with my doctor, I don't see it being a big risk to us."
And she's thrilled by the outcome so far: She's pregnant with twins.
"You know, I couldn't believe it," she says. "I still don't believe it a lot of the time. There are no words for it — it's incredible. We're very excited."
Casper says 60 women have signed up for Augment at his clinic. He has treated 20 of the women, producing eight pregnancies, he says. The first births — Melissa's twins — are due in August.
When it came time to have the baby, Shirita Corley was alone. Her mother was at the casino, her sister was not answering her cellphone, her boyfriend had disappeared months earlier, and her father she had not seen in years.
So she got in her green Chevy TrailBlazer and drove herself to the hospital.
“I feel so down,” she texted from her hospital bed. “I’m sick of these deadbeats. I’m sick of having to be so strong.”
The message went not to a friend or family member, but to a nurse, Beth Pletz. Ms. Pletz has counseled Ms. Corley at her home through the Nurse-Family Partnership, which helps poor, first-time mothers learn to be parents.
Such home visiting programs, paid for through the Affordable Care Act, are at the heart of a sweeping federal effort aimed at one of the nation’s most entrenched social problems: the persistently high rates of infant mortality. The programs have spread to some 800 cities and towns in recent years, and are testing whether successful small-scale efforts to improve children’s health by educating mothers can work on a broad national canvas.
Home visiting is an attempt to counter the damaging effects of poverty by changing habits and behaviors that have developed over generations. It gained popularity in the United States in the late 1800s when health workers like Dr. S. Josephine Baker and Lillian Wald helped poor mothers and their babies on the teeming, impoverished Lower East Side of Manhattan. At its best, the program gives poor women the confidence to take charge of their lives, a tall order that Ms. Pletz says can be achieved only if the visits are sustained. In her program, operated here by Le Bonheur Children’s Hospital, the visits continue for two years.
It is Ms. Pletz’s knack for listening and talking to women — about misbehaving men, broken cars, unreliable families — that forms the bones of her bond with them.
She zips around Memphis in her aging Toyota S.U.V. with a stethoscope dangling from the rearview mirror. Her cracked iPhone perpetually pings with texts from her 25 clients. Most of them are young, black, poor and single. Few had fathers in their lives as children, and their children are often repeating the same broken pattern.
“I was lost, going from house to house,” recalled Onie Hayslett, 22, who was homeless and pregnant when she first met Ms. Pletz two years ago. Her only shoes were slippers. “She brought me food. That’s not her job description, but she did it anyway. She really cares about what’s going on. I don’t have many people in my life like that.”
Infant mortality rates in the United States are about the same as those in Europe in the first month of life, a recent study found, but then become higher in the months after babies come home from the hospital — a period when abuse and neglect can set in. (The study adjusted for premature births, which are also higher in the United States partly because of poverty. They were kept out of the study, researchers said, because the policies to reduce them are different.)
In Memphis, where close to half of children live in poverty, according to census data, the infant mortality rate has long been among the country’s highest. Sleep deaths — in which babies suffocate because of too much soft bedding or because an adult rolls over onto them — accounted for a fifth of infant deaths in the state, according to a 2013 analysis of death certificates by the Tennessee Department of Health.
When Ms. Pletz recently visited Darrisha Onry, 21, she saw Ms. Onry’s week-old child, Cedveon, lying beside her on a dark blue couch. The room was warm, small and crowded with a large living room set, a glass table, porcelain statues of dogs and an oversize cage holding two tiny, napping puppies.
“Where is he sleeping?” Ms. Pletz asked.
Cedveon started to cry, and Ms. Onry walked out of the room to make his bottle.
“The safest place for him is alone by himself on his back in his crib,” Ms. Pletz said, scooping up Cedveon, who had launched into a full-throated squall.
A little later, Ms. Pletz said, "You know never to shake the baby, right?”
Ms. Onry nodded.
Ms. Pletz continued: “Nerves get shot and sometimes people lose their cool. If that happens, just put him on his back on a bed and close the door, and take a little rest away from him.”
The program is unusual because it is based on a series of clinical trials much like those used to test drugs. In the 1970s, a child development expert, Dr. David Olds, began sending nurses into the homes of poor mothers in Elmira, N.Y., and later into Memphis and Denver. The nurses taught mothers not to fall asleep on the couch with their infants, not to give them Coca-Cola, to pick them up when they cried and to praise them when they behaved. The outcomes were compared with those from a similar group of women who did not get the help.
The results were startling. Death rates in the visited families dropped not just for children, but for mothers, too, when compared with families who did not get the services. Child abuse and neglect declined by half. Mothers stayed in the work force longer, and their use of welfare, food stamps and Medicaid declined. Children of the most vulnerable mothers had higher grade-point averages and were less likely to be arrested than their counterparts.
The program caught the attention of President Obama, who cited it in his first presidential campaign. His administration funded the program on a national scale in 2010. So far, the home visits have reached more than 115,000 mothers and children. States apply for grants and are required to collect data on how the families fare on measures of health, education and economic self-sufficiency. Early results are expected this year.
“The big question is, can the principle of evidence be implemented in a large federal program?” said Jon Baron, president of the Coalition for Evidence-Based Policy, a nonprofit group in Washington whose aim is to increase government effectiveness in areas including education, poverty reduction and crime prevention. “And if so, will it actually improve health?”
Experts say federal standards are too loose and have allowed some groups with weak home visiting programs to participate, even if they show effects on only trivial outcomes that have no practical importance for a child’s life. Congress should fix the problem, Mr. Baron said, warning that the program in its current state is “a leaky bucket.”
“If left unchanged, essentially anyone will figure out how to qualify,” he said.
Its future is not assured. Funding for the home visiting initiative runs out as early as September for some states, and if Congress does not reauthorize it this month, programs may stop enrolling families and the $500 million the Obama administration has requested for 2016 will not be granted. Last week, its supporters urged Congress to extend it.
In Tennessee, where home visiting programs have bipartisan support, infant mortality is down by 14 percent since 2010, and sleep deaths dipped by 10 percent from 2012 to 2013. State officials credit a multitude of policies, including the home visits.
Ms. Pletz worries that she has helped only a handful of her clients truly improve their lives. But Ms. Corley, 28, the mother who drove herself to the hospital, said Ms. Pletz, who has been visiting her for two years, had made a difference. She “has been my counselor, my girlfriend, my nurse,” Ms. Corley said. Ms. Pletz helped her cope with the disappearances of her children’s fathers, taught her to recognize whooping cough and pushed her to set career goals, she said.
“She knows more about me than my own family does,” Ms. Corley said. “I feel like I’ve grown more wise. I feel stronger for sure.”
The morning after Ms. Corley gave birth, Ms. Pletz brought her breakfast: eggs, flapjacks and bacon. The new baby, Daniel, lay in a clear plastic crib next to Ms. Corley’s hospital bed, and the two women talked over his head like old friends.
“Can I pick him up?” Ms. Pletz asked.
Ms. Corley replied: “I think he’s waiting on it.”
Jonathan Winston Jones
The disconcerting news was the doctor had to Google the issue first to figure out the best medical advice.
"My provider just did a Web search to figure out what dose of hormones I should be on, and put me on the highest dose," Sallans said. That could have been a dangerous choice. "Starting too high of a dose too quickly can cause a lot of health problems, particularly to cardiovascular health."
Fortunately, Sallans didn't have any health complications.
But his experience left him with a mission. He volunteers to speak with medical institutions, as well as with businesses and colleges, to urge them to be more LGBT inclusive.
While a growing number of medical schools are teaching future doctors how to address health concerns that can be specific to the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender communities, studies show current doctors only get about five hours of training, if they get any at all.
For members of the LGBT community who live in more rural and conservative areas like Nebraska, the struggle to get good, or at least up-to-date, medical care may be even more difficult.
In general, legal protections and institutional supports for LGBT Nebraskans are already thin, spotty or nonexistent.
On March 2, the United States District Court struck down Nebraska's ban on marriage for same-sex couples, but that ruling is on appeal.
Without the legal institution of marriage, LGBT Nebraskans typically lack family health benefits, unless their employers provide them to same-sex partners.
A 2014 study from the Williams Institute at the University of California Los Angeles found that states without LGBT legal protections in place see lower rates of health insurance coverage for LGBT residents than states with protections.
That plays out in Nebraska.
A 2014 study from researchers at the University of Nebraska Omaha found that LGBT residents in the rural parts of the state have lower rates of health insurance coverage than their counterparts in urban areas.
Even when LGBT Nebraskans have health insurance, they struggle to find providers versed in lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender heath care needs.
Research shows that LGBT individuals often experience health issues linked to being regular targets of discrimination or social stigma. Discrimination has been linked to higher rates of substance abuse, suicide and stress-related illnesses, which can include heart problems, obesity, eating disorders and cancer.
If the available doctors are not familiar with the increased rates of these issues, they may provide inadequate care.
Patients who find their doctors do not understand their issues may also delay treatment, often with bad health outcomes, said Jay Irwin, an assistant professor of sociology at the University of Nebraska-Omaha and a researcher in LGBT health.
Sometimes patients are turned away by providers who don't want to treat LGBT patients, particularly if there are no laws to prohibit such discrimination.
Irwin has completed studies that focus on the health care challenges of lesbians in rural areas and found that many people feel isolated and are afraid to come out -- or risk discrimination in the medical office.
Nebraska's sheer size doesn't help. Sixteenth largest in the nation by geography, members of its LGBT community often live far from large cities with significant LGBT populations and with teaching hospitals with staff members who have experience working with members of that community.
The Human Rights Campaign's 2014 Healthcare Equality Index named four Nebraska health care facilities, all in Omaha, as leaders in LGBT health care equality.
Omaha is on the state's eastern border with Iowa. LGBT residents in western Nebraska -- for instance, places like North Platte -- have to travel 270 miles in either direction, to Omaha or Denver, Colorado, to reach facilities designated as leaders by the Human Rights Campaign.
People who work within the health care system have seen some improvement when it comes to treating members of the LGBT community.
Jill Young is the client services manager at Nebraska AIDS Project's Scottsbluff, Nebraska, office in the western part of the state.
She recalled when she started working there in the late 1990s she saw medical staff refuse care to LGBT people with HIV/AIDS.
"We had nurses, for example, who said they wouldn't serve patients with HIV/AIDS," Young said. "But we've come a long way since then."
Young has seen more hospitals in the region adopting policies that are supportive of LGBT residents, including one that just started recognizing same-sex partners' wills as legal documents that will allow them access to their partners when they are being cared for in areas restricted to immediate family only.
But she said she still sees too many LGBT residents traveling great distances to get care and she still sees too many patients who don't seek medical care until it is too late.
"We still go to the hospital," she said, "and see people who are days away from dying."
Eric Yarwood, 44, has more experience than he would like with Nebraska's health care facilities.
He spent over 100 days last year at hospitals in Omaha for complications related to germ cell cancer.
He had nine rounds of chemotherapy, three stem cell transplants, his third surgery two weeks ago and five more days for followup last week.
For all but four of the days he was in the hospital, his partner, Aaron Persen, 36, was at his side every evening. "Aaron and I are a unit," Yarwood said. "I can count on my fingers the number of times he didn't come."
While the couple has found the overwhelming majority of physicians and medical staff to be "genuinely supportive" of their relationship, there still were a few instances when they felt uncomfortable and unaccepted, once with a physician and another time with a nurse.
"I'm not sure how often the medical staff works with gay couples or receives training on how to work with gay couples," Yarwood said.
Yarwood's prognosis is good, and the couple looks with optimism to a future of having more access to LGBT-inclusive health care facilities and a more inclusive state overall.
"Hopefully, by the time we get through the cancer and save a little money," Persen said, "Nebraska will follow most other states and allow our relationship to be legally recognized."
Liberia released its last Ebola patient, a 58-year old English teacher, from a treatment center in the capital Thursday, beginning its countdown to being Ebola-free.
"I am one of the happiest human beings today on earth because it was not easy going through this situation and coming out alive," Beatrice Yardolo said after her release.
She says she became infected while caring for a sick child.
"I was bathing her. I used to carry her from the bathroom alone because nobody wanted to take any risk. That is how I got in contact," she said.
Yardolo, a mother of five, said she had been admitted to the Chinese-run Ebola treatment center in Monrovia on Feb. 18.
"I am so overwhelmed because my family has been through a very difficult period from January to now. And to know that it's all coming to an end is a very delightful news. I'm so happy," Yardolo's son, Joel Yardolo, told reporters.
Tolbert Nyenswah, assistant health minister and head of the country's Ebola response, says there are no other confirmed cases of Ebola.
"For the past 13 days the entire Republic of Liberia has gone without a confirmed Ebola virus disease," Nyenswah told reporters. "This doesn't mean that Ebola is all over in Liberia."
After a 42-day countdown - two full incubation periods for the virus to cause an infection - the country can be declared Ebola-free. Officials are monitoring 102 people who have been in recent contact with an Ebola patient.
Since the epidemic started a year ago, Liberia has recorded 9,265 cases of Ebola, with 4,057 deaths. But the World Health Organization says there are almost certainly more cases than that. WHO says close to 24,000 cases have been recorded, and close to 10,000 deaths, in the entire West African epidemic.
-- The Associated Press and Reuters contributed to this story
It’s a battle they never thought they’d face, let alone at the same time.
Missy and Brooke Shatley, a mother and daughter from Prairie Farm, Wisconsin, both have cancer. They were diagnosed only 13 days apart.
“It’s that unbelief,” Missy, 38, told ABC News of her reaction when they learned the devastating news. “You feel numb like this can’t really be happening. This is happening to somebody else, it could never be you.”
Missy was diagnosed with stage 2 cervical cancer on December 26, the day after Christmas.
“I went in for my annual physical and that was the result of it,” she explained.
Then on January 8, Brooke, Missy and her husband Jason’s oldest child, was diagnosed with stage 3 ovarian cancer.
“Why us? Why?,” Missy asked. “Is it something in our water? Is it genetic? Why both of us in such a short time frame? The doctor said it’s not the water, it’s not the environment, it’s just a freak act of nature.”
Before Missy’s diagnosis, Brooke, 14, had been experiencing severe abdominal pain that went undiagnosed for several weeks.
“The doctors told us she had a baseball-sized hemorrhagic disc and it would go away on its own and we should just wait,” Missy explained. “We waited for a few weeks and thought, ‘This is ridiculous,’ and we sought a second opinion.”
The Shatley’s then took Brooke to see the same specialist that had just diagnosed her mom days earlier. The devastating news was that Brooke’s tumor was larger than they originally suspected and needed to be operated on immediately.
“It was a four-and-a-half hour surgery,” Missy recalled. “It was a football-sized tumor. It had intertwined in her abdomen. You couldn’t tell by looking at her belly, but it was football-sized.”
The brave mother-daughter duo began undergoing intense treatments at the same time in Marshfield, Wisconsin, about two hours from their home--understandably weighing heavily on husband and father Jason, a dairy farmer, who was traveling back and forth to take care of them while also tending to their other two children and maintaining their farm.
“It’s hard,” Missy said. “Just to even think, ‘That’s my wife and daughter,’ how does anybody deal with that? Plus we have two other kids at home so he’s trying to be a husband, father, keep up with the farm, he’s being pulled in so many directions, how do you even begin?”
This week has been better for the family, however. Both Missy and Brooke are back home, resting and enjoying their time, although possibly brief, out of the hospital.
Missy just completed her final round of radiation and chemotherapy on March 2. She now must wait eight to 12 weeks before they can tell how effective the treatment was on her cancer.
Brooke still has one more round of chemo to complete, tentatively scheduled to begin on March 9.
Although their simultaneous diagnosis has been difficult, Missy says, in a way, it’s been nice to have that newfound bond with her daughter.
“You don’t want to experience it with anybody, but if you have to, doing it as a mother-daughter is helpful,” she said. “You’re bonding over raw emotions. It’s definitely a connection that you form.”
On March 28 their community is holding a benefit for the resilient pair, which Missy says is just one of the generous things they’ve done to help throughout this process.
“Not in a million years could I imagine the outreach we’ve had,” she said. “The surrounding communities have been phenomenal. We have a dairy farm so we’ve had people volunteer to do chores, saw wood, make meals, provide transportation for the other kids when we need it--anything and everything they’ve offered up.”
Most importantly, she added, “Prayers, lots of prayers.”
It is vital that treatment for stroke is given as quickly as possible in order to minimize the amount of long-term damage that occurs. Unfortunately, a new study has suggested that one third of Americans would be unable to access a primary stroke center within 1 hour should they need to.
The study, published online in Neurology, was a population-level virtual trial simulating how long it would take for patients to access stroke care following changes to systems of treatment.
"Research has shown that specialized stroke care has the potential to reduce death and disability," says study author Dr. Michael T. Mullen. "Stroke is a time-critical disease. Each second after a stroke begins, brain cells die, so it is critically important that specialized stroke care be rapidly accessible to the population."
According to the authors, stroke is one of the leading causes of death and disability in the US, occurring when the flow of blood to a portion of the brain is blocked or an artery in the brain ruptures or leaks.
In 2012, the beginnings of a three-tiered regionalized system of care were implemented. This involved the designation of certain hospitals as primary stroke centers (PSCs) and comprehensive stroke centers (CSCs), with CSCs providing the highest level of care.
Dr. Mullen and his colleagues decided to create virtual models in order to estimate what percentage of the population would have access to a comprehensive stroke center after selectively converting a number of primary stroke centers to facilities providing a higher level of care.
"In this report, we demonstrate how mathematical optimization modeling can inform the strategic development of the US network of stroke centers by simulating the conversion of PSCs into CSCs," the authors write. "This allows for virtual trials of competing system configurations in order to design a system that maximizes population access to care."
Reduced access to specialized stroke care could worsen pre-existing disparities in health
Data from 2010 was utilized, at which point there were 811 PSCs and no CSCs in the US. The researchers converted up to 20 PSCs in each state into CSCs and calculated how long it would take local populations to access these treatment facilities by ambulance or plane in optimum conditions.
After converting the PSCs to CSCs, the researchers found that only 63% would live within a 1-hour drive of a CSC, with an additional 23% within a 1-hour flight of one.
"Even under optimal conditions, many people may not have rapid access to comprehensive stroke centers, and without oversight and population level planning, actual systems of care are likely to be substantially worse than these optimized models," says Dr. Mullen.
Levels of access to care also varied in different geographical areas. Worryingly, access to care was lowest in an area often referred to as the "Stroke Belt" - 11 states where stroke death rates are more than 10% higher than the national average, predominantly situated in the southeast of the US.
"Reduced access to specialized stroke care in these areas has the potential to worsen these disparities," says Dr. Mullen. "This emphasizes the need for oversight of developing systems of care."
The authors suggest the actual number of CSCs that will be established is likely to be much smaller than 20 per state, and that increasing the number of CSCs is not an ideal way to improve access for patients due to the high costs involved.
A number of limitations are acknowledged, such as using trauma data to calculate the amount of time taken to reach a hospital, and calculating population access to hospitals using where people live, rather than where strokes occur. However, the authors argue that the majority of strokes (over 70%) occur at home.
In a linked editorial, Dr. Adam G. Kelly and Dr. John Attia suggest that CSC status is likely to be determined more by financial motives, however, rather than a population health basis.
They write that timely accessibility of PSC services, either on-site or via telemedicine, should be the first priority in the organization of regional stroke care. Following this, "CSCs should be added in a coordinated, stepwise manner with regional needs - not hospital bottom lines - as the major determinant for new CSCs."