As troubling as the nursing shortage is for the country, experts say the profession also has another problem -- it isn't diverse enough. According to researchers at the University of California's Center for the Health Professions, nursing seriously lags in reflecting racial differences of the patients being served.
The study's findings come at a time when the number of nonwhite Americans is rising. The number of Hispanics jumped by nearly 13 million between 1990 and 2000, recent census data reveals.
In California, African Americans make up four percent of registered nurses (RNs), compared to seven percent of working-age adults. The difference is even greater for Latinos, who account for 28 percent of working-age adults but only five percent of RNs.What can be done to address the gap? Policymakers and educators need to create programs that attract nonwhites to the nursing profession and they need to target younger generations, say the study's authors. For starters, nursing schools can link up with K-12 students, teachers and parents to relay information about nursing careers.
California now has a foundation that provides scholarships and loan repayment for disadvantaged youth. States like Iowa, New York, Ohio and South Carolina have experimented with "career laddering" projects that help move workers like nurses' aides into nursing itself.
"Nursing has historically drawn primarily on white women to fill its ranks. Young people across the country today are a diverse group and we need to figure out how we're going to attract Latinos and African Americans to the profession... to alleviate the shortage and serve the public effectively," says the center's Janet Coffman, a co-author of the study.
Coffman says the call for diversity at a time when a shortage of nurses is a growing problem may be overwhelming for some. "It's important for legislators to recognize that the shortage is not just about the numbers, but it's also about the backgrounds of the people. [Lawmakers] should keep these needs in mind, think about and develop solutions that help tap into potential nurses that have been historically overlooked," she says.