Nurse Faculty Scholar Explores Ways to Improve Latino Health

    • August 29, 2011

One year after earning her associate’s degree in nursing, Maren Coffman, Ph.D., R.N., embarked on a mission to Venezuela for religious reasons. She wasn’t practicing health care at the time, but what she learned on that journey decades ago formed the foundation of a career she has dedicated to improving the health of Latinos in her own country.

“While I was there I lived with the people, I ate the food, I soaked up the customs,” she says. “I really loved everything about it, and when I returned home I sought out opportunities to speak the language and take care of the people.”

After she returned to the United States, she had many opportunities to work with the Latino population. Coffman was offered a job as a home health care nurse in Hartford, Conn., home to a large concentration of Puerto Ricans. She took it—and kept it for nearly a decade. During that time, Coffman spent her days knocking on the doors of her Latino patients and treating them in their homes and in their language. “It was a lot like serving in the mission,” she recalls.

Coffman went on to earn a doctorate from the University of Connecticut in nursing and then joined the faculty of the School of Nursing at the University of North Carolina in Charlotte, N.C. An assistant professor working with undocumented immigrants in the heart of an emerging immigrant gateway city, Coffman has kept her focus on improving the health of Latinos and narrowing health disparities between non-Hispanic Whites and Latinos.

A competitive grant from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation (RWJF) is helping her do that. Two years ago, Coffman was named an RWJF Nurse Faculty Scholar. The program gives junior faculty who show outstanding promise as future leaders in academic nursing three-year $350,000 awards to conduct research projects.

Coffman Designs Teaching Method to Improve Health Literacy

For her project, Coffman is designing an intervention to improve health literacy—the ability to obtain, process and understand basic health information and services—among Latinas with diabetes. That disease hits Latinos nearly twice as often as non-Hispanic Whites. But because most Latinos are new to Charlotte, many have not found ways to access the health care system effectively, Coffman says. Lack of access to health care for people with diabetes can be devastating; high blood sugar levels can lead to vein damage, vision loss, kidney disease, amputation, stroke and heart disease.

“We’ve got this population of individuals who have chronic diseases but aren’t getting health care, and too often if they do it’s in the emergency department,” Coffman says. “I want to find ways to help this population access the health care system so they can manage the disease.”

At the onset of her project, Coffman used local Latino churches, community service agencies, and Spanish language newspapers and radio to reach people interested in participating in her study. She then enrolled study participants in a 10-week health literacy course that covered diet, physical activity and disease prevention and management. Instead of relying on the traditional didactic—or Socratic—teaching method, students in the course take a more active role in the learning process by reading, writing and engaging in critical discussion. She is now enrolling a second cohort of students.

The project is not yet complete, but initial results are encouraging. After the course, she says, the first cohort had lower blood sugar levels and an increase in health literacy.

When she completes her current project, Coffman plans to explore other applications for this intervention, perhaps among Latinos with chronic disease such as congestive heart failure or hypertension, or among other vulnerable populations, like Blacks. She also hopes to conduct a larger study.

The Robert Wood Johnson Foundation Nurse Faculty Scholar program aims to strengthen the academic productivity and overall excellence of nursing schools by developing the next generation of national leaders in academic nursing. Supporting nurse faculty will help curb a severe shortage of nurse educators that threatens to undermine the health and health care of all Americans.