Calling All Nurses to Address Health Disparities

Jan 16, 2015, 10:11 AM, Posted by Susan Hassmiller

I spent the 2014 holiday season reading a book by Sarah Wildman called Paper Love. She describes how she, as a journalist, examined the fate of her Jewish predecessors, including her grandfather and his long lost love. I selected the book because my father was a Jew of Polish descent.

Wildman describes the horrific atrocities bestowed upon the Jews. Of course I knew of the Holocaust growing up, but as I get older, the connections between past and present seem to be more important. While I don’t know of any relative who was personally affected or killed, someone in my extended family very likely was. I pondered my own existence and how it may have depended on a relative escaping Europe and immigrating to the United States to escape the death camps. It is unspeakable how one man’s view of what is mainstream or normal sent so many others to their death.

I am not naive enough to believe that prejudice is a curse of the past. Stark data on health disparities continue to mount. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention report on Health Disparities and Inequalities (2013) found that mortality rates from chronic illness, premature births, suicide, auto accidents, and drugs were all higher for certain minority populations.

But I believe passionately that nurses and other health professionals can be part of the solution to addressing these disparities. Nurses are privileged to enter into the lives of others in a very intimate way, and that means lives that are, more often than not, very different than our own.

I understand that it is human nature to be more comfortable with the familiar, but it is not what we are called to in nursing.  More than 150 years ago, Florence Nightingale noted a strong link between a population’s health and its economic prosperity, and she called for all people to be treated equally.

My mother recounted to me that when she first entered “nurses training” at Bellevue Hospital School of Nursing in 1943, Director Blanche Edwards addressed the students on her expectations of conduct for her nurse trainees. Part of that lecture—and what translated into the culture of those being trained at Bellevue—addressed the equality of all human life and how she expected her nurses to treat everyone with equal care and attention.

My mother said that although she was aware of differences in skin color, socioeconomic status, and country of origin, she believed that Ms. Edwards was right and went about caring for people as if they were equal.  Everyone deserved the same care. Anything less was simply unethical.

My mother taught me the importance of treating everyone with compassion and equality, and it’s something that I’ve strived to do throughout my career as a nurse.

Workforce diversity is part of the equation. I’m proud that the Institute of Medicine report, The Future of Nursing: Leading Change, Advancing Health, calls for a more diverse workforce and for all health care practitioners to be culturally competent. I’m grateful that my passion and my livelihood are directing efforts to implement these recommendations. And I hope that history will view the report as a factor that spurred more nurses to advocate for a more diverse workforce and equal care for all. To act any other way would not be in keeping with the privilege of being a nurse.

This commentary originally appeared on the RWJF Human Capital Blog. The views and opinions expressed here are those of the authors.