At nursing school, a push to diversify hospital staffs

Before enrolling in the School of Nursing this semester, Rebecca Shasanmi worked in a community-based health center in North Philadelphia, where half the population is black and the area is poverty-stricken.

She said she picked GW’s nursing school after reading on its website that it emphasized diversity and wanted to close the gap between white and minority nurses – a commitment it is redoubling starting this fall through mentorship and recruitment.

“As a student, you want to go someplace where you’re not going to just be learning from top people in the field, but where you get mentorship,” said Shasanmi, a 28-year-old who was born in Nigeria.

The nursing school will run a full court press this fall to diversify its student body, using federal grant money to add scholarships, develop a marketing campaign and mobilize faculty mentors and alumni.

The University’s newest and smallest school wants to play its part in a national effort to change the look of a workforce that is short on Hispanic and black nurses, the school’s dean Jean Johnson said.

After earning a three-year, nearly $1 million grant from the U.S. Health Resources and Services Administration in July, administrators are drawing up a plan to turn dollars into results.

“There is a commitment not only by us but nursing and health professionals in general to diversify the workforce,” said Johnson, who has led the school since it opened its doors in 2010. “We have work to do. We believe that probably the nursing workforce should reflect what the population at large looks like.”

To lure students into the school that included 2.8 percent Hispanic and 11.4 percent black students last year, the school will advertise in minority-targeted media and reach out to students in community colleges, nursing professor and program director of the grant Ellen Dawson said.

The school will widen offerings for its pre-professional “boot camp,” adding a program component that prepares nurses whose second language is English.

The school will also add a new faculty member to focus on diversity issues and run its mentorship program this year, the cost of whom is covered by the grant. Professors will also go through a national program geared toward improving the “cultural competency” of health care professionals, Dawson said.

“We will be able to speak to students with knowledge about what they may be going through,” Dawson said. “We know students from some cultures may not be willing to tell you when they’re in trouble, and how we can help. So it’s going to start with the faculty.”

About 5 percent of nurses in the U.S. are black and 3.6 percent are Hispanic – vastly lower than these groups’ national makeup according to census figures, a 2008 federal study shows.

So pressure is on for nursing schools to reverse the trend, Johnson said. Doctors and nurses who do not understand cultural differences often under-serve minority patients and are not focused on health disparities between ethnicities, she added. Multiple studies over the past two decades from medical schools at University of Washington and Johns Hopkins University have shown that minority patients often have low trust in their physicians.

The grant provides more than a half-million dollars in scholarship and stipend money, but administrators are strategizing how to recruit and retain minority students for its online programs and 15-month bachelor’s program on the Virginia Science and Technology Campus.

Celia Besore, executive director and CEO of the National Association of Hispanic Nurses, said mentorship is crucial to retaining minority students. A study by the nonprofit found last year that nearly three-quarters of Hispanic nurses say competing family obligations hurt their professional aspirations, and that lack of time and money squeezed them out of the field.

“People enter in the school, but they don’t graduate, or in a few years they’re out of the profession. They should be built in a network of people where they feel they have a support system,” Besore said.

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