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Amid workforce shortages, Kentucky nurses say support is needed to retain and recruit people of color

Humana CEO Bruce Broussard stands in a brightly lit room, in front of tables filled with students from the Grace James Academy of Excellence and nurses from Humana's Nursing Advisory Council.
Humana CEO Bruce Broussard dropped by the company's headquarters in Louisville to talk to students from the Grace James Academy of Excellence. The students spent one morning there, earlier this month, with nurses on Humana's Nursing Advisory Council.

Kentucky nurses say people can build diverse careers with a nursing education. But racism in the industry makes it especially difficult to recruit and retain nurses of color.

At Humana’s headquarters in Louisville earlier this month, Kathleen Corcoran and Sara Harrington taught 12-year-old Madison Victor how to take someone’s blood pressure.

“So pump it up to about the 180,” Harrington told Madison as they watched the gauge on the blood pressure cuff.

Madison goes to the Grace James Academy of Excellence, an all-girls school that mainly teaches Black students and provides an Afrocentric curriculum focusing on science, technology, engineering, arts and math, or STEAM. She and other students from the academy were visiting with members of Humana’s Nursing Advisory Council.

Nurses from across the country were in town that week for a council summit. They devoted one morning to the Grace James Academy students — answering questions about their jobs, telling them about the history of nursing and teaching them to take someone’s vital signs.

Humana’s chief nursing officer, Kathy Driscoll, said it was the company’s first time doing an event like this with seventh graders.

“These students have a whole world in front of them,” she said. “You know, it’s kind of like an open slate here. And we’re really looking to inspire our future nurses.”

The United States’ nursing shortage is a big reason why. The Kentucky Nurses Association estimates the Bluegrass State alone will be short at least 20,000 nurses by 2025.

Building career pipelines of future nurses is important, Driscoll said. So is figuring out how best to help the people entering those pipelines.

“We hope to inspire these students but also connect with them as they become high-school students, college students, et cetera,” Driscoll said.

Experts say recruiting and retaining nurses requires providing better support and resources. That’s especially true for people of color, who face additional barriers due to racism.

About 92% of Kentucky nurses are white, according to the KNA. Only 4% are Black, whereas the state’s overall population is almost 9% Black. Similarly, just 1% of nurses are Hispanic, compared to 5% of the population.

“I have to say that part of the reason we have a nursing shortage is that many nurses of color have said, ‘Enough. I'm not taking it anymore, and I'm out,’” said Delanor Manson, KNA’s CEO.

Manson is the first Black person to lead the KNA in its 117-year history. And she has had a long and varied career in nursing.

Her grandmother was a nursing assistant and encouraged her to pick this profession.

Manson graduated from the University of Kentucky’s nursing school in the 1970s. But she says her experience there was horrendous.

"It was so bad that I refused to go to Lexington, Kentucky, for 30 years. I would not step foot in the city," she said. "It was traumatic."

Manson said she and the school’s few other Black students were not treated with much respect. She remembers an instructor told her she’d make a better nursing assistant than a nurse.

“I had to call and ask my mother, ‘What could she possibly be talking about?’ And what my mother told me is that they don’t think that Black people make good nurses because we’re not smart enough,” Manson recalled. “And she said, ‘And I’m sure you’ll prove her wrong.’”

"But can you imagine, as a young 20-year-old, being told that you're not good enough to be a nurse?” she told LPM News.

Later, Manson’s nursing career took her across the world as a now-retired Navy officer. Racism remained a challenge, and it still throws up barriers for Black nurses today.

“Many African American nurses who are very qualified in terms of degrees and experience do not get the opportunity for promotion,” Manson said, adding universities and workplaces must do more to welcome and advance nurses of color in this profession.

“There has to be openness to inviting them in, to have the conversation about the possibilities … and what type of support they may need.”

To address racism in the nursing profession, Manson also recommended training that focuses on how to evaluate and reduce implicit biases against people due to their race or other characteristics.

Manson said the KNA successfully advocated for a relatively new rule that requires nurses licensed in Kentucky to take implicit bias training.

Despite the barriers faced by people of color due to racism, Manson said she thinks students of color should consider nursing as a potential career. It’s a strong foundation that unlocks paths to a wide array of jobs.

“With a nursing education, the world is open to you,” she said.

Valenchia Brown has spent over a decade working in health care, including women’s health, long-term care and other sectors.

Now she’s a clinical research nurse practitioner at the Norton Infectious Diseases Institute in Louisville, and she’s earning a doctorate of nursing practice.

Brown grew up in Namibia before immigrating to the U.S. and said mentors, including other professionals of color, helped her advance her career.

“I leaned on people to help me and to advise me on what to do when I find myself in a sticky situation or faced by racism,” she said.

To foster an inclusive environment, retain nurses of color and ensure equal opportunities for their professionals, Brown said health care institutions can develop diversity and inclusion policies, provide cultural competency training and promote anti-racist practices.

Representation matters, Brown told LPM News. Role models can inspire more people to become nurses, but the historic contributions people of color have made to the profession are minimized.

“Going through nursing school, I never heard or learned about one Black nurse in history that contributed to anything,” she said.

But plenty of Black nurses have been critical to the field. Brown mentioned Mary Seacole, a pioneer in nursing who treated wounded men during the Crimean War — the same war that made Florence Nightingale famous.

“Sharing these types of stories can inspire aspiring Black nurses,” she said.

Morgan is LPM's health reporter. Email Morgan at mwatkins@lpm.org.

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