I knew from a very young age that I wanted to become a healthcare professional. An anesthesiologist to be exact. I had the grades and I had the drive. However, as the youngest of seven to a single mother, I couldn't afford medical school tuition. So, my high school guidance counselor encouraged me to enroll in a licensed practical nurse course—a decision that changed my life. Six months into the program, nursing became my passion.
I am an African-American man, standing 6 feet, 6 inches tall. It's probably safe to assume that I don't look like what most people might consider your stereotypical nurse. While statistics on demographics in the nursing workforce vary, they do reveal that the profession is considerably lacking representation across race, ethnicity and gender.
As the president of the American Nurses Association, I strive to increase diversity in nursing by confronting stereotypes and elevating the profession. To increase the public's understanding and appreciation of the value of nursing, we must promote realistic images of nurses and their vast contributions to healthcare.
Recent findings in the National Nursing Workforce Survey, the only national-level survey on the nursing workforce in the U.S., indicate that there is much work to be done to increase diversity. Men constitute 9% of the nursing workforce and individuals from racial and ethnic minority groups account for 19%. Approximately 5% of nurses are Hispanic, and 8% are Asian. African-Americans represent 6% of the nursing population in the U.S. and the National League for Nursing reports that they are more likely to pursue baccalaureate and higher degrees in nursing. In 2016, 12% of baccalaureate and graduate nursing students were men, according to the American Association of Colleges of Nursing.
The nursing profession should reflect society and our patients. By 2030, the U.S. population is expected to grow considerably and become more racially and ethnically diverse than ever. The population of people who are two or more races is projected to be the fastest-growing racial or ethnic group, followed by Asians, Hispanics and African-Americans, respectively. Often, nurses are the first line of defense to provide quality care and lifesaving treatment in underserved communities and to underrepresented populations that are disproportionately affected by health and healthcare disparities. A diverse nursing workforce helps to increase access to quality healthcare services, address preventable health conditions and tackle social determinants of health.
Diversity in nursing fosters cultural competence and removes socio-cultural barriers to care in clinical settings, such as language, values and shared belief systems. Varying cultural perspectives ensure all patients and populations receive optimal, empathic care, which improves health literacy. Nearly half of all American adults—90 million people—have difficulty understanding and using health information. Representing the front lines of care in almost every healthcare setting, nurses play an active role in fostering health literacy so patients can make informed health decisions.
Promoting realistic images of nurses and increasing diversity in the profession must be deliberate. Simple acts make a difference, such as sharing information with guidance counselors and potential recruits about the successes of nurses to help those interested achieve and advance a career in nursing. We need to discuss financial assistance and advocate for development programs like Title VIII of the Public Health Service Act, which includes workforce diversity grants.
If there isn't strong representation across an organization's nursing staff, nurses and nurse leaders should urge their employers to improve their recruitment efforts. I particularly encourage nurses from underrepresented populations to connect with those from similar backgrounds—and to do it early. For example, they could visit a K-12 public school in their community and speak about the profession and why they enjoy being a nurse. Their presence is a meaningful starting point to eliminate stereotypes of what nurses look like and do.
Together, we can all help increase diversity in nursing.