“It is possible to change the face of nursing.” With those words, Vernell P. DeWitty, Ph.D., R.N., deputy program director of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation's New Careers in Nursing Scholarship Program (NCIN), captured the scope of one of the most difficult challenges facing the nation’s health care system: the need to create a more diverse workforce so as to better serve the nation’s health care needs. DeWitty’s remarks came before a roomful of reporters and editors at a National Association of Black Journalists’ (NABJ) symposium on health disparities in early March.
The numbers tell a tale of stark disparities. Blacks account for 12.8 percent of the U.S. population, but just 4.2 percent of registered nurses; Hispanics are 14.4 percent of the population, and just 1.7 percent of nurses.
Researchers have long recognized the connection between a culturally diverse workforce and quality patient care. Communities of color continue to be affected disproportionately by a range of health problems, including higher rates of HIV, obesity and diabetes. The ability of providers to communicate effectively with patients, and to understand their cultural backgrounds, is important to patient care.
NCIN provides grants to schools of nursing to support individual scholarships of up to $10,000 for college graduates with degrees in other fields. Scholarships go to students who are either from disadvantaged backgrounds, or are from groups underrepresented in nursing. Scholarship recipients enroll in accelerated nursing programs, on track to receive degrees within 18 to 24 months. The model “maximizes impact on the nursing profession,” DeWitty explained. NCIN is housed at the American Association of Colleges of Nursing in Washington, D.C.
Since its first grants in 2008, NCIN has supported programs at 84 schools of nursing around the nation, making grants to large institutions, including Duke and the University of Texas at Austin, and smaller schools, including Shenandoah University in Winchester, Virginia. In the program’s first year, 28.3 percent of NCIN’s students were Black, and 14.8 percent were Hispanic. Of the 45.8 percent of students who identified themselves as White, nearly 70 percent were male. By the end of this second year of grants, a total of $14.06 million in scholarship funding will have been distributed to 1,406 entry-level nursing students.
At the NABJ symposium, DeWitty shared the stage with former Secretary of Health and Human Services Secretary Louis Sullivan, M.D., who noted that “Nurses are the backbone of the system, providing 80 percent of the care.” Sullivan went on to discuss concerns about diversifying the pipeline of African-American physicians. Reporters asked the two presenters a variety of questions related to students’ preparation for study in the health professions, online education trends, the capacity of nursing and medical schools to teach the growing numbers of aspiring nurses and doctors, and the cultural competency of White health professionals.