Understanding the Increasing Importance of Diversity in Nursing
Diversity matters in healthcare. Without many kinds of people shaping the practices and perceptions of the field, inequality, miscommunication and ineffectiveness can run wild. But as the years go on, healthcare systems are becoming increasingly aware of the problems that could be solved by a more diverse workforce.
“From co-workers to patients, nurses work around a very diverse group of people every day,” says Sandra Crawley, RN, BSN and medical consultant at Mom Loves Best. “An increase in cultural competency can have a positive and dramatic effect on the way we practice our trade. We can connect with our patients in a way that they feel understood and respected.”
Most nurses care deeply about the impact they have on their patients and look for new ways to broaden their effectiveness. If you are a nurse, a nursing student, or just someone curious about the topic, you might wonder what nurses have to say about diversity and inclusion. We relied on nurses and prominent research in nursing to shed some light on what diversity in nursing really means, and why it matters today.
What does diversity in nursing mean?
Much of the conversation around diversity in nursing involves evaluating demographics within the nursing workforce. The National League for Nursing (NLN) focuses on many specific areas of diversity in their vision statement: race, ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation and gender identity, socio-economic status, age, physical abilities, religious beliefs and political beliefs.
Their message of diversity in nursing is to support the code of ethical conduct nurses already adhere to, treating every person with dignity and respect. The NLN writes that the ethical code does not “take into account the fear of difference” that can result in implicit and explicit biases.
“We have to see that our judgments, our biases, and our assumptions are on us, and are not always the truth,” Crawley says. “This is the only way we can grow. The more diverse a hospital is, the more opportunity there is for growth and excellence.”
For example, consider language barriers. It’s easy to see why a nurse who speaks their patient’s language would be able to provide better care. Sure, a vein is a vein on any person—but so much of the essential work nurses do to comfort patients, educate and monitor patient improvement depends on communication and comprehension.
“It is vulnerable to discuss individual differences with a healthcare provider when so many people receive judgment and ridicule in society,” says June Rolph, MSN, RNP-PMHNP-BC and psychiatric mental health nurse practitioner at Capstone Mental Health. Rolph says her own experience as a pansexual woman with disabilities taught her that certain differences between patient and provider can become a huge barrier.
For many nurses, diversity in nursing is about lowering those barriers. It’s about finding new perspectives that can broaden their awareness of their patients and improve their care. It’s about being a better nurse.
Why diversity in nursing matters
We asked nurses to get specific on what increased diversity in nursing can do for patients, families, nurses and the whole healthcare system.
Represent the populations we serve
Nurses have long believed that representing the populations they work with matters. But a 2013 report by the National League for Nursing found that 19 percent of registered nurses were from underrepresented racial and ethnic backgrounds, a figure that does not mirror the nation’s demographic breakdown at large.1
“A diverse nursing workforce is important because it is essential that nurses represent the population,” says Catherine Burger of RegisteredNursing.org. This isn’t just for posterity, Burger points out, but for effective care.
“Patients who are able to relate to their nurses will be more likely to comply with health advice, as nurses can mitigate any cultural challenges and tailor education directly to the patient.”
Lower health disparities
The Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) defines health disparity as “preventable differences in the burden of disease, injury, violence, or opportunities to achieve optimal health that are experienced by socially disadvantaged populations.” Factors like poverty, inadequate access to health care, education inequality and other factors can all add up to create health disparities between groups of people.
“There has been a lot of progress over the past few decades, yet LGTBQ health disparities remain,” Rolph says. “Training in diversity as a nurse over a decade ago was focused on cultural and racial differences in health seeking behaviors, eye contact preferences, and traditional medicines.” She explains that more inclusiveness for LGTBQ individuals has become more of a push in the last few years. “It has been really nice to see.”
“Increasing diversity in nursing would likely increase the number of individuals who seek healthcare,” Rolph says. “As a result, health disparities would likely diminish.”
Find the most innovative solutions
These days, most organizations know that diverse and inclusive teams tend to produce better results. The same is true in healthcare.
“Diversity brings new ideas, concepts and solutions to healthcare teams,” Burger says. “When we're able to care for our patients and their families with a wider world view, the entire community benefits.” Rolph makes this a point of emphasis as well. “I appreciate the men and women from here and abroad who provide a different view of health, wellness and social justice.”
Make healthcare a positive experience
“It is so important to make the positive difference in the world we all aspire to,” Rolph says. “The world is filled with billions of people and the more inclusive we can be, the more ideas we share and the more lives we help.”
And that’s not just restricted to patient interactions. Rolph adds that the inclusive attitude of her co-workers makes a huge difference in her life and the work she does.
The many facets of diversity in nursing
“With so many cultures and identities in the workforce, we need to evolve from the golden rule to the platinum rule,” Burger says. This means instead of treating others how you want to be treated, you treat others how they wish to be treated. “This takes courageous conversations of asking people more clarifying questions so that they believe we are personalizing our care and, more importantly, respecting their cultural differences.”
One fairly unique aspect of the issue of diversity in nursing is the prominence of women in this field. As nursing teams work to become more inclusive of every identity, gender plays a role in the conversation. So what can we learn from men working in this field? Our article, “Men in Nursing Reveal What It’s Really Like Working in a Female-Dominated Field,” explores this further.
1National League for Nursing, Vision Series: Transforming Nursing Education Leading the Call to Reform, Achieving Diversity and Meaningful Inclusion in Nursing Education, [accessed March, 2020] http://www.nln.org/docs/default-source/about/vision-statement-achieving-diversity.pdf