By Kristen Mitchell
The George Washington University School of Nursing brought together experts as part of a bicentennial signature event to discuss the transformative role nursing education can play in making health care more equitable and reflective of the communities they serve.
Pamela Slaven-Lee, interim dean of GW Nursing, said the COVID-19 pandemic exacerbated critical gaps in our existing health care system that disproportionately affect low income and minority populations.
“Nurses at all levels need to have solid, empathetic, real-world knowledge and understanding of the factors that affect health and well-being,” she said. “They need to appreciate the social, economic and environmental issues that can often impede access to quality care, especially for those most vulnerable among us.
“As we look to tackle the mission of advancing health equity, it's nurses who will take the charge, and it's up to us to prepare them for that test.”
The virtual event, “Celebrating 200 Years: GW Nursing Bicentennial Signature Event, Future of Nursing Panel” was held Wednesday. The panelists included national nursing leaders and committee members who produced the Future of Nursing 2020-2030 Report, published by the National Academy of Medicine in May.
The Future of Nursing report envisions a major role for nurses in tackling the complex work of aligning public health, health care, social services and public policies to eliminate health disparities and achieve health equity, said Ashley Darcy-Mahoney, GW associate professor and the National Academy of Medicine’s nurse scholar-in-residence who participated in producing the report.
“As the largest and most trusted segment of the health care workforce, we are well suited to help our country advance health equity, but we need support from systems that educate, pay, employ and enable us to do this work,” she said. “Across the board, we need to value nurses in the work we do to keep us all healthy and well.”
Report Committee Member Marcus Henderson, a lecturer at the University of Pennsylvania School of Nursing and a Ph.D. student at Johns Hopkins University School of Nursing, presented major takeaways from the report. In addition to ensuring equitable access to care and recognizing the impact of social determinants of health—the environmental conditions that affect a person’s well-being and quality of life—he spoke about an urgent need to diversify the nursing workforce. Data shows that while racial and ethnic minorities account for about 40% of the United States’ population, they only make up 20% of the nursing workforce, he said.
Nursing educators are overwhelmingly white and female, Mr. Henderson said, and many are not prepared to educate students on social determinants of health or health equity. Both students and faculty from racial and ethnic minority backgrounds report experiencing unwelcoming environments, a lack of support and feeling marginalized, he said.
“The report recommends that if we want to diversify the nursing workforce, that nursing schools need to intentionally recruit, support and mentor faculty and students from diverse backgrounds to ensure that the next generation of nurses reflects the communities they serve,” he said.
Bev Malone, CEO of the National League for Nursing, said one way to get young people interested in nursing is through advocating for the profession within local communities. Nursing leaders should interact with elementary, middle and high school students, principals and guidance counselors, and host programs to speak with them about careers in nursing.
“Nursing has that draw and that ability to offer you an opportunity to, for the rest of your life, make a difference not just in somebody's life, but in the life of many,” she said.
Deb Trautman, CEO of the American Association of Colleges of Nursing, said a holistic admissions process is critical to recruiting candidates from all backgrounds. Colleges must assess a student’s potential and identify how to best support them, identifying students with diverse life and work experiences who think about the world in different ways.
“The grades, the test scores, there's much more to assessing whether an individual is a good fit and would make a great contribution to our profession,” she said.
Sue Hassmiller, an adviser for nursing at the National Academy of Medicine and the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, emphasized the importance of letting potential future nurses visit academic health centers, clinics and hospitals to see nurses doing their jobs up close.
“I really believe that seeing people who look like you and who are in action really makes a difference,” she said.
The panelists also spoke about the importance of experiential learning for students. Seeing how external challenges impact health while working in the community “opens the eyes for students about what happens after discharge,” Mr. Henderson said. Gaining experience working in settings such as public schools, libraries and correctional facilities gives students a more comprehensive understanding of community health, he said.
GW’s bicentennial celebration culminates with the Our Moment, Our Momentum: The GW Centuries Celebration Weekend from Oct. 1 to Oct. 3. Information about additional upcoming events can be found on GW’s bicentennial website.