Latinos, the nation’s largest minority group, comprise 17 percent of the United States population. And that number continues to rise steadily. The U.S. Census Bureau projects that by 2050 nearly one-third of the nation’s population will be Latino.
But Latinos are woefully underrepresented in many professions, particularly in healthcare. Fewer than five percent of registered nurses are Latino, according to the Office of Minority Health at the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. In contrast, 8.3 percent of registered nurses are Asian Americans and about 10 percent are African-Americans.
The nursing profession certainly has made significant strides in attracting “non-traditional” hires in recent decades. Nearly 10 percent of registered nurses are male, and representation of several minority groups continues to climb because more people realize that a bachelor’s or advanced degree in nursing is a ticket into the middle, or perhaps even the upper-middle, class.
But the growth of Latinos in nursing has been slow. Indeed, between 1980 and 2010, Latinos had the lowest growth rate in the nursing profession among all demographic groups, according to a study published earlier this year in the American Journal of Nursing.
The scarcity of Latino nurses is a major threat to the delivery of healthcare to a large segment of our community. Our nursing schools, professional nursing organizations, government health agencies and community groups must work closely together to address this problem.
The challenges posed by the low numbers of Latino nurses could not come at a worse time. Healthcare in America is undergoing some of the biggest changes ever in part because of the Affordable Care Act. These changes include the increased emphasis on chronic disease prevention and sweeping demographic changes that include age, race and ethnicity. Nurses are on the frontline of healthcare delivery. But the role of registered nurses is changing rapidly. Nurses are increasingly being called on to play bigger roles in health care management, delivery and outcomes.
A healthcare professional who shares your cultural background and has a sound understanding of your culture or heritage can make a big difference in your health care outcomes. Or, as an American Journal of Nursing study noted, “The lack of Latino nurses weakens quality of care. We cannot have a healthy, vibrant nation if a significant percentage of our population either lacks access to healthcare or to culturally competent health care professionals.”
A significant percentage of Latinos speak Spanish as their first language. Latino nurses who are bilingual can play a crucial role in addressing the health needs of this population.
A huge challenge looms in the coming decades. Latinos are the nation’s youngest ethnic group. Six in 10 Latinos are millennials or younger, according to the Pew Research Center. So the challenge of adequate healthcare delivery will only increase in the coming years as the Latino population—a mix of people from countries as varied as Cuba, Mexico, the Dominican Republic, Guatemala, and El Salvador— continues to grow steadily.
Our nursing schools must work aggressively to be a part of the solution to this crisis. They can do this by being more intentional or strategic in their outreach to Latinos. Part of this outreach must take into account some of the barriers faced by these groups in getting a college education. Some of those barriers include limited financing and the difficulties of being a first-generation college student.
At the College of Nursing and Health Innovation at The University of Texas Arlington, we have been intentional in our efforts to attract diverse populations to the nursing profession. Our faculty and administrators have been strategic and relentless in their outreach to students in public and charter high schools. We inform them about the vast opportunities for nursing professionals and the countless possibilities to make a difference. We are intentional about our outreach to publicly funded schools because Latinos make up the largest percentage of K-12 public school students in the Dallas-Fort Worth area.
Our efforts have been fruitful. About 18 percent of our nursing students are Latinos.
We strive to create an environment that is nurturing and inclusive. We actively support organizations like the Hispanic Student Nursing Association. We also provide resources like the Student Success Center, which helps students navigate academic and personal challenges.
Many years ago, we recognized the need to expand our model for educating nurses. That’s why we have made online education a major component of student instruction. This has made our program more enticing to qualified students from all backgrounds, including those whose schedules make it impossible for them to be on campus. As a result, two-thirds of our students take classes online.
While we are pleased with our results we know we still have a long way to go. We also know that we can’t do it alone. The approximately 2,000 nursing programs in the United States must work closely with nursing bodies, organizations, community groups and government agencies. We must recognize the depth of the problem. We must work together to build the next generation of nurses. And we must ensure these new corps of nurses looks like America.
Anne R. Bavier, PhD, is dean of the College of Nursing and Health Innovation and president of the National League for Nursing.