By Heather Stringer
By 2043, the U.S. is projected to become a majority-minority nation for the first time in its history, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. Both the Hispanic and Asian populations will more than double between 2012 and 2060, and the black population will increase by 50% during the same time period. These statistics illustrate that nurses will be caring for a progressively diverse patient population and the increasing urgency to build a diverse RN workforce.
“Patients come with an expectation that the caregiver will understand all of their care needs,” Deidre Walton, RN/PHN, MSN, JD, president and CEO of the National Black Nurses Association based in Silver Spring, Md., said. “When you have a diverse workforce, you have people with knowledge and skills to meet the diverse needs of patients. The patient’s cultural identification, spiritual affiliation, language and gender can all affect the care they need, and it is very important that the nurse understands that.”
Although Walton said the healthcare community is far from reflecting the demographics of the American population, she has hope as she looks into the future because diversity in the nursing workforce is being highlighted as a critical priority by more than minority nursing organizations.
“I am excited because organizations such as the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and AARP have a diversity agenda, and that makes me hopeful that there will be change,” she said.
Increasing diversity in the workforce, as illustrated on the following pages, will take individual and group efforts.
Job titles of minority nurses
According to the 2008 National Sample Survey of Registered Nurses, the largest sample to date, minority nurses were more likely to hold staff nurse positions than white, non-Hispanic nurses.
Black nurses comprise 5.4% of the RN workforce, and 13.8% are in management positions, which is higher than any other ethnic group. Walton, however, said far more black nurses still are needed in leadership positions because this 13.8% is taken from a small pool of nurses.
“Some organizations have very active programs to promote diversity in leadership, but the diversity gap in leadership continues,” Walton said. “There is a gap between how many minorities are recruited and how many are actually hired. These minorities in leadership roles are able to participate in making changes to improve the practice environment and outcomes, and this is very important.”
White, non-Hispanic: 64.8%
RNs in management, by race/ethnicity:
12.9% of White, non-Hispanic RNs
13.8% of Black RNs
10.9% of Hispanic RNs
7.2% of Asian RNs
Distribution of RNs by race/ethnicity vs. national population demographics:
White, non-Hispanic: 83.2% vs. 65.6%
3.6% vs. 15.4%
Black: 5.4% vs. 12.2%
Asian or Native Hawaiian/Pacific Islander:
5.8 % vs. 4.5%
American Indian/Alaska Native:
0.3% vs. 0.8%
(Source: 2008 National Sample Survey of Registered Nurses)
Can patient ethnicity affect care?
According to a 2012 report from the Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality, racial and ethnic minorities face more barriers to care and receive poorer quality of care when they can get it. Findings from the report included:
Blacks received worse care than whites, and Hispanics received worse care than non-Hispanic whites for about 40% of quality measures.
American Indians and Alaska Natives received worse care than whites for one-third of quality measures.
Blacks had worse access to care than whites for one-third of measures, and American Indians and Alaska Natives had worse access to care than whites for about 40% of access measures.
Hispanics had worse access to care than non-Hispanic whites for about 70% of measures.
Would a more diverse RN workforce correct some of these disparities? "Absolutely,” Walton said. “Diversity will improve patient-nurse communication, collaboration and clinical practice for patients of all backgrounds. If an African-American woman comes to the ED with abdominal pain, what is the likelihood that she will be diagnosed with a sexually transmitted disease as the cause of the pain rather than [staff] conducting other tests for a definitive diagnosis? When you have a culturally diverse RN workforce, they may not as easily dismiss symptoms and will advocate for a more intense work-up.”
According to the 2008 National Sample Survey of Registered Nurses, only 0.3% of the RN workforce is American Indian or Alaska Native. This small percentage who are accepted into nursing school, earn their degree and enter the workforce often have overcome significant challenges, Bev Warne, RN, MSN, one of the founders of the Native American Nurses Association based in Phoenix, Ariz., said. “A survey in 2010 showed that 51% of Native American high school students graduate, so the drop-out rate is very high,” Warne said. “There are complex reasons for this. Studies show that many grow up in families that are poverty-stricken, so they suffer from poor nutrition and difficult family situations, and by the time they are in junior high they are already behind.”
Warne believes the preparation to attain a formal education begins with good prenatal care, proper nutrition and support for parents. Even after Native Americans are accepted into nursing school, there are other challenges they may face.
“There are differences in values among Native people and Western people,” Warne said. “Generally Native Americans are raised in more of an extended family where there is an emphasis on inclusiveness. When they go into the college setting outside the reservation, they may confront Western values that promote individualism and competition, which is often the opposite of how they were raised. To be successful in this new setting, it is important for educators to get involved with students to discuss this new reality.”
It also can be difficult to transition to the Western medicine paradigm, Warne said. “In the Western hospital setting, caregivers tend to look more toward the physical aspects of illness, but from the Native perspective, they are accustomed to a holistic way of viewing a person.”
Power to promote
Although it may seem difficult to make time to promote nursing to minorities within the community, here are a few simple strategies that are making a difference.
Celia Besore, executive director and CEO, National Association of Hispanic Nurses:
“I believe stories are really what lead people to consider nursing. The personal stories of nurses who were maybe the first to go to college in their families and now are very successful are the ones that inspire people. Our chapter members go into the community and do career fairs and visit schools, and that is when nurses can share their stories. There have been times when people have discouraged Hispanic students from going to nursing school because they think the students will not succeed, and our nurses can give them hope. We also tell young people that 30% of our members are student nurses, so they know they will not be alone.
“During these events, we also explain that now is a good time to be a minority in healthcare,” she continued. “We get calls from places that are desperately looking for Latino nurses. The word is starting to get out that it is an asset to understand the culture and language of minority patients, and hospitals want people with this experience.”
Mildred Crear, RN, MA, MPH, chairwoman for nursing and community education, Bay Area Black Nurses Association:
“Our chapter sponsors community health events like blood pressure drives, and this gives people in the community a chance to see us and ask what it takes to be a nurse. We share this information and then invite them to our meetings. We also do a lot of health fairs with churches and black sororities and fraternities where we do presentations about nursing, and this has been a really effective way of promoting the profession.”
Sharon Smith, RN, MSN, FNP-BC, president of the San Diego Black Nurses Association:
“I think it is critical to connect with people when they are young and try to mentor them. You can meet youth through church, in the community or through the events sponsored by your minority association. Our chapter visits high schools to recruit students, and we will go into the tough neighborhoods where it is harder for students to believe that they can do it. I share my own story that I grew up in North Carolina in one of the poorest counties, and I was told I would never finish high school. I told myself, ‘This is your thought, and not mine,’ and I went on to earn a BSN, a master’s degree and now I am pursuing a doctorate. You can do simple things like take them to work or communicate online, and this will show students the positives of a career in nursing.”
It starts in the schools
Diversity in the nursing workforce is dependent upon a pipeline of diverse students who graduate from nursing school. This much-needed diversity among students, however, requires focus and resources, Julie Zerwic, RN, PhD, FAHA, FAAN, professor and executive associate dean at the University of Illinois at Chicago, College of Nursing, said. “Our school went through a period of time when there was no staff focused on watching diversity, so the number of underrepresented minorities in the program dropped,” she said. “If no one is paying close attention, you can lose momentum.”
For example, the school recognized that a number of underrepresented minorities were not finishing their applications and would benefit from having a staff member available to receive phone calls and answer questions. The school also started offering application workshops.
Although Zerwic hopes to see even more diversity among undergraduate nursing students, her institution has had significant success in recruiting graduate minority students. Zerwic credits a National Institutes of Health-funded program, the Bridges to the Doctorate Program, that helps the school to support potential minority doctoral students through mentoring, funding and coursework.
Undergraduate - black students: 10.2%
Undergraduate - Latino students: 9.6%
PhD - black or Latino students: 25%
Like the University of Illinois, diversity became a high priority in the School of Nursing at The University of Texas Health Science Center. “We knew that about 62% of the population in San Antonio was Hispanic, and to provide competent healthcare we needed to increase the number of Hispanic nursing students,” Hilda Mejia Abreu, PhD, MS, BA, associate dean for admissions and student services at UTHSC San Antonio, said.
During the spring and fall, staff members travel throughout the U.S. to college fairs, schools, nursing association recruitment fairs and other activities to recruit minority students. The local Spanish-language channel also regularly features a 15-minute segment in which Mejia Abreu explains the college preparatory classes needed to apply for nursing school and how to finance an education.
San Antonio, Spring 2013
Black: 5.2% • Hispanic: 32.3%
Asian: 10.7% • White: 45%
By comparison, below are the national diversity statistics for nursing schools:
Race/Ethnicity of Students Enrolled in Entry-Level
Baccalaureate Nursing Programs in the U.S. in 2011
White, non-Hispanic: 72%
Asian, Native Hawaiian or other Pacific Islander: 8.8%
American Indian or Alaskan Native: 0.5%
(Source: American Association of Colleges of Nursing)
Overcoming the language barrier
For nurses who have arrived in the U.S. as adults and learned English as a second language, there typically are two distinct challenges they will face when communicating: being understood by Americans and understanding Americans, said Victoria Navarro, RN, MSN, MAS, president of the Philippine Nurses Association of America.
“In the Philippines, we were colonized by Spain for about 400 years, so the Filipino language (Tagalog) that evolved has root words based in Spanish,” Navarro said. “We pronounce every syllable. In English, you have words with silent syllables or letters, so that in itself is something that we need to learn.”
In addition to pronunciation, healthcare workers use jargon to communicate, and this is even more complicated when English is a second language. Navarro remembers when a physician told a Filipino nurse to get the “lytes.” The nurse turned off the lights, when in fact he had meant electrolytes. Other communication challenges Filipino nurses confront in the U.S. include:
In Tagalog, there are no long vowels, so it takes time and practice to learn to pronounce these sounds.
There are no pronouns such as ‘he’ and ‘she’ in Tagalog, and there are no singular or plural verbs. It takes time to know when to say the proper pronoun or verb. Many people make mistakes initially.
Mental processing in the native language happens before responding in English. The literal translation from Tagalog to English could change the intent of the sentence.
In the Philippines, people have high respect for elders and do not speak unless they are asked something directly. For this reason, Filipino nurses may be considered passive by peers or patients.
Navarro and Joseph Mojares, RN, BSN, president of the Philippine Nurses Association of Northern California, say proficiency can come with practice and time and made the following suggestions:
Do not be embarrassed to ask questions to clarify what others mean so you can learn the correct pronunciation and terminology.
Constantly immerse yourself in English-speaking environments and expose yourself to mainstream media at work and at home.
Challenge yourself by taking classes in communication, leadership and public speaking so you can improve your English.
Find mentors and preceptors who can encourage you and give you suggestions about how to present yourself and communicate.
Tips for scholarship success
Jasmine Melendez, the scholarships and grants administrator at the Foundation of the National Student Nurses Association, has an insider’s view into the world of financial assistance. She has seen hundreds of scholarship applications, and said reviewers are looking for three things from applicants: financial need, high academic achievement and involvement in community health activities.
“It is important to maintain a high GPA, but students who make time for some form of community service really set themselves apart,” Melendez said.
Another way to stand out from the competition is to turn in well-crafted, accurate essays. “What I’ve been noticing is that students need to learn to write well,” she said. “When you convey a message, you want to make sure you convey it in a clear, concise manner with no spelling errors or grammar mistakes.”
Here are other tips she suggests:
Get comfortable with the Internet because most scholarships are found on the Web. Websites that can help minority students find scholarships include:
Check with minority-owned businesses to see whether they offer scholarships, and ask the financial aid office at your school about scholarships and applications.
The hospital association in your state may have access to scholarship information.
Don’t make the mistake of thinking scholarship deadlines are only in the first part of the year. There are scholarships available every quarter of the year.
Don’t disqualify yourself by not applying. Apply for everything and let the committee say no.