In Health Care, Diversity Matters

September 2012Crystal Loucel

Because minorities are more likely to receive less and lower-quality health care and suffer higher mortality rates from cancer, heart disease, diabetes, HIV/AIDS and mental health illnesses than their Caucasian counterparts, there have long been calls to increase the number of minority providers to reduce these health disparities. Numerous studies have shown that patients are more likely to receive quality preventive care and treatment when they share race, ethnicity, language and/or religious experience with their providers.

The 2010 Institute of Medicine report The Future of Nursing: Leading Change, Advancing Health found that a diverse workforce – and the diverse perspective it provides – contributes to enhanced communication, health care access, patient satisfaction, decreased health disparities, improved problem solving for complex problems and innovation. Moreover, the Health Resources and Services Administration (HRSA) has found that minorities could improve access to care in underserved areas more than nonminority providers (see The Rationale for Diversity in the Health Professions: A Review of the Evidence [HRSA, 2006]).

Yet minorities are still under-represented in the health care workforce generally and in nursing in particular. In 1908, when Israel Zangwill popularized the term melting pot to describe the American population, it was 89 percent white, 10 percent black and less than 1 percent Indian, Chinese, Japanese and “others.” Today’s melting pot is considerably more diverse, composed of more than one-third racial and ethnic minorities; moreover, the United States Census Bureau expects that portion to be more than half by 2050.

“Today the nursing workforce does not adequately reflect the diversity in the population including gender,” says Beverly Malone, CEO of the National League for Nursing. Latinos, African Americans, American Indians and Native Alaskans compose only 7.6 percent of the nursing workforce, a dismal figure compared to the 25 percent in the general population. UCSF’s nursing student population is doing a bit better – in 2009, the latest year for which data are available, these same groups composed 16 percent of the UCSF nursing student body – but there is certainly room for improvement. When Asian Americans are included, a 2008 HRSA report showed that minorities make up 35 percent of the total population but only 17 percent of the nursing population.

UCSF has been trying to respond to the 2004 Sullivan Commission Report, titled Missing Persons: Minorities in the Health Professions, which recommended that health profession schools hire diversity program managers and develop plans to ensure institutional diversity, including providing educational support, commitment, role modeling and dedicated recruitment. Currently, Judy Martin-Holland serves as associate dean for Academic Programs and Diversity Initiatives at UCSF School of Nursing, a role in which she recruits minority students, seeks to integrate more diversity in the curriculum, and offers support programs for minority students. In addition, after years of medical student advocacy, Renee Navarro, vice chancellor Diversity and Outreach, created the School’s first Multicultural Resource Center. Though the center currently has no budget, its director, Mijiza Sanchez, hopes to advocate for the types of programs that the commission has recommended, such as the mentoring that Sanchez herself offers students.

It’s also important to remember that minorities often face barriers to financing their education and would benefit from scholarships, loan forgiveness and tuition reimbursement programs.

In addition, universities should link to minority professional organizations to promote enhanced admissions policies, cultural competency training and enhanced minority student recruitment. For example, as volunteer president of the San Francisco Bay Area chapter of the National Association of Hispanic Nurses (NAHN), I am proactively connecting to the UCSF student group Voces Latinas Nursing Student Association (VLNSA) to do just that. VLNSA is open to students of all ethnicities who are interested in working with the Latino community; the ability to speak Spanish is not required. And organizations like NAHN typically offer reduced student membership and benefits such as mentoring, résumé revision, job postings, volunteer opportunities, networking and more for students, without requiring them to be from any particular racial or ethnic background.

That last point is important, because no matter how diverse your workforce, the goal is to create an environment that is inclusive and allows everyone to express themselves. As minorities, we cannot address our specific health issues alone; rather, this is a challenge for all health care providers. Given what we know about diversity and its importance to health care, we must partner to creatively address and embrace an ever more diverse future.

Crystal Loucel Crystal Loucel is a first-year master’s student at UCSF School of Nursing and president of the San Francisco Bay Area chapter of the National Association of Hispanic Nurses. She has a master’s in public health, specializing in global health, from Loma Linda University; has served as an AmeriCorps and Peace Corps volunteer in Honduras; was one of eight RNs chosen in 2012 for a General Electric-National Medical Fellowship in primary care; and is a 2012 scholarship recipient from the National Association of Hispanic Nurses. An earlier version of this piece appeared in the UCSF student newspaper, Synapse.