How Can the Nursing Workforce Care for a Diverse Patient Population?

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by Melissa Mills Melissa Mills, BSN

Specializes in Workforce development, education, and advancement. Has 24 years experience.

The current nursing workforce doesn't match the make-up of the U.S. population. It's not a bad thing, but it requires nurses to strive to deliver culturally competent care. Learn how in this article.

Do you know the best ways to deliver culturally competent nursing care?

How Can the Nursing Workforce Care for a Diverse Patient Population?

Imagine walking into an emergency room to find that everyone working in the facility looks different than you. Your skin tone and hair aren’t the same, and you don’t walk or talk the way they do. Your sexual orientation, religion, and ethnicity aren’t aligned with the care team either. Do you think they will understand you? Will they connect with you as you describe the mental and physical health concerns that brought you to the facility?

While this example sounds extreme, patients deal with situations like these every day. However, it’s important to note that diversity in the nursing workforce is more than gender and race. It’s about being able to understand the patient when it comes to things like sexual orientation, disability, religion, ethnicity, and even veteran status. Even how we think and feel about the world around us should be considered when you’re talking about delivering care centered around the patient and their needs. 

Let’s dive into this profound topic. First, we’ll look at the history of diversity in nursing.  Then, we’ll discuss ways to provide care that meets patients where they are, even if we aren’t similar.  

History & Where We are Today

Nursing as we know it today started in the mid-19th century. In 1879, Mary Eliza Mahoney was the first black nurse to earn a nursing license. Mahoney spent much of her career fighting racial discrimination in nursing and increasing access to nursing education for people of color. Many nurses followed in Mahoney’s footsteps fighting for the rights of nurses and patients in our healthcare system. This work still happens today.

Men were likely working as nurses before Florence Nightingale. After that, however, the profession was filled primarily with women as men entered other jobs. Some educational institutions started using discriminatory practices and limited admission to nursing programs to women only. Men like Joe Hogan fought to change these practices when he applied to the Mississippi University for Women in the late 1970s to obtain his bachelor's degree. He was denied admittance and then sued the school for discrimination. A court ruled in favor of Hogan in 1982 and ended gender discrimination in publicly funded schools.

While gender and race are not the only ways a nursing workforce shows diversity, these are the two with the most data. Unfortunately, it’s challenging to find information about religion, sexual preferences, and other diverse populations because it wasn’t collected. Hopefully, we’ll do a better job with this in the future. 

Where are we today?

The National Council of State Boards of Nursing conducted a workforce study in 2020. According to this study, 80.6% of the RNs in America are white. Other racial backgrounds that make up the RN workforce include African Americans (6.7%), Asians (7.2%), and Hispanics (5.6%). In addition, men now make up 9.4% of all RNs in the U.S. 

But how does this match up to the makeup of the U.S. population? Not well! 

The current U.S. population is 59.4% white and non-Hispanic. Hispanic/Latinos account for 18.9% of the population, African Americans account for 12.6%, and Asians account for 5.9%. In addition, the Human Rights Campaign Foundation reports that nearly 8% of the adult population in the US identifies as LGBT. 

How Can We Better Serve the Population?

The statistics above might make you pause about the nursing workforce’s ability to provide culturally competent care. While most nurses strive to care for patients the best way they know how there is something to be said for being cared for by someone who has walked in your shoes. So, what can we do?

Think About Your Patients 

The naked eye might not see the things about us that truly make us unique. However, you can start there! When you care for a new patient, think about their race and ethnicity and how it differs from yours. Take time to talk to them about their life experiences and how their culture, race, ethnicity, sexual preferences, and other factors have contributed to the person they are today. 

Don’t Be Afraid to Ask

Sometimes we get nervous about asking people intimate questions about themselves. But how else are we to learn? So, the next time you care for someone with a background you aren’t familiar with, ask them to tell you about themselves and their story. You can also ask your colleagues who might have a better understanding to give you support and guidance. 

Keep Learning

You might not enjoy Continuing Education courses. However, they are the best way to improve your understanding of your patients and their unique backgrounds. Choose topics in diversity and cultural competence to stay current and provide culturally competent and sensitive care. 

Be Patient with Yourself and Your Patients

Healthcare is stressful and changes minute by minute. So, work hard to give yourself and your patients grace and patience when you might not see eye to eye. And, if you make a mistake or offend someone, apologize and let them know you’re learning and growing and want to do better. 

Talk to Your Employer

Meet with your manager if your employer doesn’t do a stellar job hiring a diverse nursing workforce or providing ongoing educational opportunities to learn the best way to care for diverse populations. Suggest they look into hiring practices or start a council on diversity in the workplace. If you struggle to connect with patients with unique needs, other nurses probably do, too, and will likely support your efforts to expand their knowledge and understanding of the topic.

How Else Can Nurses Help?

These are just a few things nurses can do to provide culturally competent and sensitive care.

What ideas do you have? What’s worked or didn’t work where you’re employed?

Comment below to get the conversation started.


References/Resources

Why More Black Nurses Are Needed in Healthcare

6 Male Nurses in History You Should Know (But Probably Don’t)

How has the population changed in the US?

We Are Here: LGBTQ+ Adult Population in United States Reaches At Least 20 Million, According to Human Rights Campaign Foundation Report

Melissa is a registered nurse with over 23 years of experience. She is a nurse leader and freelance writer who loves challenging the status quo. She loves processes, operations, and technology (aka she is a real nerd!). When she isn't doing nerdy work things, she is outside with her husband and dogs hiking or exploring local parks.

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