Last issue’s health policy column highlighted nursing’s increased engagement in the public policy arena. To continue this conversation, this column highlights a registered nurse running for Congress to help champion access to affordable health care. Yes, Lauren Underwood, MSN/MPH, RN, of Naperville, Illinois is running for Congress to represent the 14th Congressional District of Illinois.
Her Journey to Pursuing an Elected Position
Underwood is steadfast and fiercely committed to helping shape policies and programs focused on ensuring that everyone has access to affordable health care. She is a registered nurse who received her BSN from the University of Michigan and her MSN/MPH from Johns Hopkins University. Her nursing experiences include service as a health policy advisor, research fellow, senior director, and research nurse at the National Institutes of Health Clinical Center. Her passion for public policy was heightened while serving as a health policy advisor in the Office of the Secretary at the Health and Human Services in Washington, DC initially under the leadership of Secretary Kathleen Sebelius followed by the leadership of Secretary Sylvia Burwell. In this capacity, Underwood worked on private insurance reform, summary of insurance benefits, health care quality in the Medicare program, the Agency for Health care Research and Quality, and preventive services (free screenings, immunizations, and contraceptive coverage) for four and a half years from 2010-2014.
Lauren Underwood, MSN/MPH, RN
Democratic Candidate for Congress, 14th Congressional District of Illinois
Tell us about working for the Obama administration.
Got a call the week that Mr. [Thomas Eric] Duncan was in the hospital in Dallas with Ebola asking if I would be willing to join the President’s team to help with disaster response, so I transferred over to ASPR, the Assistant Secretary for Preparedness and Response, at HHS. We worked on emerging infectious diseases (e.g., Ebola, Zika Virus, Middle East Respiratory Syndrome virus, or MERS), we also did national disasters (e.g., wildfires, hurricanes, floods) and then bioterror (small pox, anthrax) and worked with drug companies to develop vaccines, treatments, and diagnostics. I stayed in the administration until the very end, the last day. And so, when the election happened in 2016 we were working on the water crisis in Flint. I was surprised, and I thought that Hillary Clinton’s team was going to win and that we were going to hand off our work on health reform and on Flint to people who cared and wanted to continue the process. And then we got the Trump team who made it very clear they wanted to do away with health care coverage. And that’s not why I went into nursing or why I did this work. So, I knew I could stay in government and help them do that. I wanted to continue the work and so I came back home to Illinois because Illinois is a state that expanded Medicaid. I got a job working for a Medicaid managed care company in Chicago as the Senior Director for Strategy and Regulatory Affairs for a company called Next Level Health.
Are you still there?
I left my job about six weeks ago. The primary campaign was about eight months. I worked full time six and a half months; you know you have to do that. I am a young person, not someone of particular means or whatever, so it was necessary. And then it was like “Lauren, you could really win if you put your time and energy into the campaign.” And so that was an easy choice to transfer to full time.
So, you are now devoting full time to the campaign?
This reflects your journey. Describe in a few words what really made you run for an elected position.
I am going to tell you a story. Last spring when I returned home, I went to congressman Randy Hultgren’s one and only public event. It was a moderated event hosted by the League of Women Voters. And during that evening, he made a promise and said that he was only going to support a version of Obamacare repeal that allowed people with preexisting conditions to keep their coverage. That’s important to me as a nurse. I also know how critical it is for people with chronic illness to have access to medications and procedures that they need. Obviously, I worked to implement the Affordable Care Act so I read the law and I know that it works. I know that we can fix what does not work. We do not have to throw the whole thing away. Like so many Americans, I have a preexisting condition myself. I have a heart condition, SVT (supraventricular tachycardia), and it is well controlled. As you know, it is a preexisting condition, so I would not be able to get coverage under these repeal scenarios. And so, when the congressman made that promise I believed him.
And then a week to ten days later he went and voted for the American Health Care Act, which is a version of repeal that did the opposite. It made it cost prohibitive for people like me to get coverage. And so, I was upset not at the vote itself, but because he did not have the integrity to be honest the one time he stood before our community. That’s not what a representative is supposed to do. A representative is supposed to be transparent, accessible, and honest. And we deserve better. I said, “you know what, it’s on! I’m running” and launched my campaign in August and just won the primary on March 20th. I was in a field of seven—the only woman running against six men—and I won 57% of the vote.
Were you the only African American?
I know you are concerned about overall access to care and have a deep commitment to utilizing your expertise and experience while working in the Obama administration.
I believe that health care is the number one issue in this election across the country and in our district, and we need a solution to make health care more affordable for American families. It is not enough for families to rake together money for their premiums and have an insurance card in their pockets and cannot afford the coverage.
I believe that a lot of the conversation in the last several years has been political in nature and undoing President Obama’s legacy and not on at all focused on trying to lower costs and make health care accessible for American families. That’s my objective! I want to work on drug prices. I want to work on this opioid drug crisis so that loved ones can get the treatment that they so desperately need. And so, I believe there is a lot of value in having a nurse at the negotiation tables when we are making these decisions and passing policies that will transform our health care system. I am excited about the opportunity to be a leading voice on Capitol Hill on these important issues.
What do you think are the most pressing issues impacting nursing and health care?
Affordability. Any program that is starved of resources will fail. The ACA has been intentionally sabotaged and as a result, we see extraordinary high premiums that are unaffordable for most families. That is not how the program was designed to work and so I think there are technical fixes we can do to make the program more affordable. We can do things like negotiate drug prices, it can be done, we need to take a strong position on this opioid drug addiction crisis. We need to implement reforms like how we pay for rehab and how we award funds to municipalities in order to create a pathway for lasting change. And then there are opportunities to expand coverage so we will have fewer uninsured Americans. What we are seeing now in order to resuscitate it takes 2-3 doses of Narcan because the drugs are so strong. Municipalities who have received Narcan grants are running out of Narcan. A Narcan only solution is not a solution. Law enforcement only solution is not a solution. Addiction is an illness and we need to treat it as such. We need to send people to treatment so they can have a shot at recovery. We could have an evidence-based policy solution. We know treatment can be effective.
What do you think is the most pressing issue affecting nursing today?
I think there are a few things. The high cost of our education. We have not really seen increases in funding. What we have seen are marginal increases or flat funding. I think that this is unacceptable, in particular in the context of what we are seeing in higher education more broadly. And not just at the federal level. In higher education, many states have reduced putting money into public education, shifting the responsibility to families and individuals and with that coupled with flat funding for nursing education we are seeing a generation of nursing students with significant debt. And that is going to be a barrier, I believe, to our profession being able to grow. Right now, we have an economic situation where we are not seeing the shortage that we saw ten years ago. But it’s very easy to get back to that point if the economics of going into nursing shifts when you graduate from a BSN program with $100,000 in debt and are limited in your initial salary. Loan repayment programs are not that plentiful as they used to be. The economics of it makes it tough. Because we are talking about middle class folks who are not able to take on that debt. And when it is becoming increasingly attractive to become an APRN, that is all debt to be able to get the master’s to become a nurse practitioner or a nurse midwife. We are going to need some serious advocacy and a plan to deal with the cost of our education.
What are your thoughts about safe staffing?
It is so interesting. Safe staffing has been a legislative priority for decades. We have not been able to pass these bills. I think the approach needs to be more balanced with safe staffing committees in these hospitals. Moving away from these ratios and having hospitals have safe staffing committees that would take into consideration the circumstances that facilities and the region when staffing levels. On these committees, nurses would serve so a legislative body is not dictating it. I think that this is an appropriate approach coupled with compelling Medicare participating facilities to set staffing levels and monitor outcomes.
When elected, what would you do to go about helping to ensure equitable access to health care?
That’s like the question! For me, equitable access to health care allows everyone to get health care. Health care is a human right. Human rights have been fundamental to my nursing practice. It is written in our Code of Ethics—this idea that everyone should have health care—and I think our policies should reflect that. For me, that includes fixing the Affordable Care Act to ensure affordable coverage; and making sure we have clinics, hospitals, and facilities in communities so that the burden is not on low-income people or people with transportation challenges or resource limitations so that people are able to get the care and services they need. We have so much innovation, technology, and so many improvements now in a way we are able to provide care whether it’s telemedicine or individualized health care. It is a shame if all of that innovation and all of those improvements are seen in resource communities. We need to be focused in these conversations about reform and transforming our system to ensure that it is serving everyone—rural, urban, low income, and elderly.
What advice would you give to aspiring policy advocates who may be considering a run for public office?
Your country needs you! There are too few nurses in policy positions. Seek a County Board position. The County Board supervises the local Department of Health. Run for state legislator, they address scope of practice issues. Run for Congress! There are many opportunities to serve and lead. Step forward!
One of the hottest topics amongst nurse educators today is finding strategies to promote safe learning in the classroom environment. According to the American Association of Colleges of Nursing (AACN), it is estimated that over 73% of “nontraditional” students are studying in undergraduate nursing programs. The term “nontraditional” refers to all students who meet the following criteria: over the age of 25, ethnic minority groups, speaks English as a second language, a male, has dependent children, has a general equivalency diploma (GED), required to take remedial courses, and students who commute to the college campus. Nurse educators have a responsibility to ensure that all of their nursing students are learning in a safe environment.
For instance, microaggression is something that nurse educators must address in order to promote a safe classroom environment. Microaggressions are subtle, verbal and nonverbal snubs, insults, putdowns, and condescending messages directed towards people of color, women, the LGBTQ population, people with disabilities, and any other marginalized group. These insults are often automatic and unconscious in nature, according to Derald Wing Sue, PhD, author of Microaggression in Everyday Life: Race, Gender, and Sexual Orientation. Microaggression can cause a person to question themselves regardless of whether the microaggression occurred or not because they were unsure if they were just being oversensitive to the offense or if the perpetrator really intended to harm them with what they said. Microaggressions are usually committed by “well-intentioned folks” who are unaware of the hidden message that is being transferred.
Types of Microaggression
Microaggressions are similar to carbon monoxide—“invisible, but potentially lethal”—continuous exposure to these types of interactions “can be a sort of death by a thousand cuts to the victim,” says Sue. He further outlines three themes in three microaggression categories. The three themes are: racial, gender, and sexual orientation. The themes appear to occur in three different forms of microaggression: microassaults, microinsults, and microinvalidations.
Microassaults. Also known as “old-fashioned racism,” microassaults are conscious verbal or nonverbal attacks meant to hurt, oppress, or discriminate against the marginalized groups. This can range from telling racial jokes, name-calling, or isolating a student base on their racial, sexual, or gender identity. For instance, a student may deliberately refer to an Asian classmate as an Oriental. (Hidden message: You are not a true American. You are a perpetual foreigner in your own country.) Another example of a microassault is a teacher asking an African American male student, “Are you a first-time generation college student?” (Hidden message: African American males usually do not go to college.) Microassaults leave the students feeling unwanted, uncomfortable, and invisible.
Microinsults. A microinsult is an unconscious and unintentional discriminatory action against one’s identity. For instance, a teacher not asking a transgender student what pronoun to use when addressing the student (Hidden message: You are not acknowledging my identity.) Another example of microinsult is a teacher calling on an Asian student to come to the blackboard to work out a drug calculation problem. (Hidden message: All Asians are supposed to be good at math.) Or a student jokingly making the comment “that’s so gay.” (Hidden message: Being gay is associated with negative and undesirable characteristics.) A microinsult can also be nonverbal. For instance, when a white professor fails to call on the African American students in the classroom. (Hidden message: People of color contributions are unimportant.) Microinsults can have a far-fetching negative impact on a student, and they can affect a student’s motivation and commitment as well as mental health.
Microinvalidations. Microinvalidations are unconscious communications or environmental cues that faintly exclude, negate, or nullify the psychological thoughts, feelings, or experiential reality of a person’s identity. One example of microinvalidation is a student asking an Asian student, “Where are you from? You speak perfect English.” The Asian student replying, “I was born and raised in Florida.” (Hidden message: You are not American.) Or when a teacher continues to mispronounce the name of a student even after the student has repeatedly corrected the teacher. (Hidden message: I am not willing to learn how to pronounce a non-English based name.) Or a white science professor asking the male nursing students, “Why are you going into a nursing? It’s a female profession.” (Hidden message: Nursing is not “a real man’s job.”) Or the classic case of a white student telling her black roommate, “I don’t see color. There is only one race: the human race.” The color blindness offense is one of the most frequently delivered microinvalidations. Another example of microinvalidation is a student who unconsciously opens the door for a classmate who is in a wheelchair. (Hidden message: You are not able to independently take care of yourself.) The student should wait for the student in the wheelchair to ask for help if she or he needs it. Microinvalidation is one of the most harmful forms of microaggression because it leaves the victim feeling ashamed and asking themselves “Am I being oversensitive or paranoid?”
How to Address Microaggressions in the Classroom
Professors and students are the most common perpetrators of microaggressions in the nursing classroom environment. In the course of interaction, the professor or student may say something that offends a student intentionally or unintentionally. Since microaggressions are usually invisible to the perpetrator and may seem to have reasonable alternative explanations, the student may be left feeling uneasy and questioning themselves about what the implied message was.
Microaggression is processed in five different phases, Sue says. Phase one is the incident (verbal, nonverbal, or environmental). The perpetrator intentionally or unintentionally commits the offense. Phase two is the receiver’s perception of the offense. For instance, the receiver may ask themselves, “Was I just discriminated against?” or “Did she say what I think she said?” Phase three is the receiver’s immediate response to the offense. The receiver may respond by taking a defensive stand. Phase four is the receiver’s interpretation of the meaning of the offense. They may even ask themselves, “Should I say something?” or “If I say something it may make it worse.” Phase five is the consequence that may happen to the receiver of the offense. For instance, students may lose confidence in their ability to complete the course. Microaggressions can cause psychological consequences on the students over time, such as anxiety, depression, helplessness, and loss of drive, which can impede the student’s academic performance.
Therefore, the first step to addressing microaggression in the classroom environment is to acknowledge that it exists, says Jared Edwards, PhD, a psychology professor at Southwestern Oklahoma State University. Nurse educators need to get to know their students. You should be aware of their campus cultural environment and the specific challenges that your students from different backgrounds may face. Do not dismiss the classroom experience of microaggressions as “isolated” incidents. You should work with your students to create a safe classroom atmosphere by establishing solid ground rules and classroom expectations. You can incorporate open classroom discussions about microaggressions into your courses. For instance, have students conduct a group presentation on the impact of microaggressions in a classroom environment. This will promote teambuilding skills and communication and writing skills as well as help create awareness surrounding the common occurrences of microaggressions. Nurse educators need to be aware of what programs (e.g., student counseling center, disability services) are available on their campus so they can refer students who may need help dealing with the psychological consequences of microaggressions.
Nurse educators must be prepared to teach and advocate for culturally diverse students in a multicultural classroom setting. Additionally, they can show they value their students in many ways. For instance, taking the time to learn how to properly pronounce every student’s name can show the students that you value the student’s identity.
Nine years ago, I was so happy to have my first article published in Minority Nurse. The article was a discussion on whether or not it’s OK to be out at work as a gay person. Looking back at the changes I’ve seen over this time period, I decided to put together a few thoughts.
The county hospital where I work is rolling out some new intake questions for our electronic health record system. The impetus is to better serve our LGBTQ patients. A transgender person with residual breast tissue did not know he could still get breast cancer. An MTF person developed prostate cancer. These patients slipped through the cracks because they lived their true self but had body parts susceptible to illness that the caregiver was not aware of. By next month, we hope to have 10% of our patients properly classified using our new Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity (SOGI) questions. As the program rolls out, we will capture more and more of our population so caregivers can better serve them.
As a gay man in my 50s, I have seen great changes in my lifetime on LGBTQ issues. There was a time when just being out was a danger. But we bring some unique perspectives to our job that shouldn’t be overlooked. We know what it’s like to be the underdog. We cherish family because we worked so hard to have our families recognized. Respect for minorities come easily to us because we have suffered discrimination. Fairness in treatment under the law was not free for us or other minorities so we always strive to protect our patients’ rights. We know that being gay does not give you AIDS, but we also know what those risk factors are and we are able to educate our patients on the facts without judgement.
Now that we are rolling out a campaign to identify our patients’ unique needs regarding sexual health, reproductive issues, and mental health, we are working to destigmatize these issues in our community. Just asking these questions can be a litmus test of our own feelings. When the program was being explained in an employee meeting, there was pushback. “Our patients will be insulted.” Or, “Our patients won’t understand the terms.”
It occurred to me that we might be projecting our own feelings and, in some cases ignorance, onto our patients. Of course, there are what seem like valid issues when trying to tease this information out of patients in the geriatric clinic. My feeling is that you just throw the questions out there and you get what you get. The elderly are just as much part of the world as the young (and in between).I can’t wait to get some real world experience in asking these questions:
- What is the sex on your original birth certificate?
- What is your gender identity?
- What is your sexual orientation?
Some explanation might be needed with some patients. Sexual identity is not your sexual orientation. Sexual identity cannot be inferred from your birth certificate. We are looking forward to the rollout but with a bit of trepidation because we are not used to asking such personal questions. But,if you want to better serve this population, you have to identify them. The FTM person who never got a breast cancer screening because his caregivers never informed him of the risk—that can be preventable with better understanding of our patients. More information is better than less.
I take away two points from the SOGI questions that excite me. The first is that caregivers are going to be more aware of the disparities in health care that can occur with our LGBTQ patients. We are charged with the care of all our patients, not just the ones that fit into neat boxes. Just being aware of the differences makes us stop to weigh implications that might have been missed in the past. The second is that by normalizing this conversation, both patients and caregivers can talk openly about a subject that was once taboo. It’s OK to be gay or lesbian, FTM, MTF, something in between, or nothing at all. We all have health care needs.
Annette Smith, a nurse and coworker with 35 years of experience, has insight into changes in practice like the new SOGI questions: “At the beginning, there is a lot of pushback. The sky is falling, the sky is falling. But after a while, the process becomes normalized and it’s not a big deal anymore. We end up wondering what all the fuss was about!”
There was a time when just talking about sexual orientation was not even considered. Now we are required to ask! This destigmatizes the whole subject. To revisit my first question: It should never be a question of whether it’s right or wrong to be out at work. It’s just a question of you being comfortable enough in your own skin to let other people know.
In May 2015, I joined the faculty at the University of Florida College of Nursing (UF CON) as an associate professor. Fourteen months later, I became a single adoptive mother to a newborn. My successful journey through single motherhood while balancing my academic responsibilities was due, in large part, to the overwhelming support I received from the entire body of the CON including the dean, department chair, faculty, staff, and students.
Working From Home
When I think about the reaction of my senior colleagues when I shared the news that I adopted a newborn, I am in awe. My department chair was elated, and after congratulating me, the first words she uttered were,“Miriam, you have my support. I am here to provide you with whatever resources you need to succeed at motherhood and your academic career. You can take maternity leave, work from home to direct your research, teach online, and teleconference as needed.” Before I could respond, my department chair excitedly went next door to inform the dean, who glowed with joy about my news, grabbed my hands, and stated emphatically, “You are taking maternity leave.” I was stunned.
I was surprised about the reactions I received from the administrators because I was not sure what to expect. I was a newly hired associate professor trying to build my research program following relocation from another institution. Because I was a relatively new hire, I was afraid they would express misgivings about my status as a single mother with no family support, which might affect my productivity as an employee; however, these fears were not realized. Although the administrators strongly encouraged me to take maternity leave, I opted to work primarily from home and hire a babysitter to assist me, who cared for my son when I travelled to campus to teach and to attend research team meetings. Incredibly, senior colleagues encouraged me to bring my son to our hour-long meetings and to classes after students requested it. As a result of their kind support, I brought my son to research team meetings, where my colleagues enjoyed meeting him, and to class, where my students happily posed for photos with my son and me.
Was it Unprofessional to Bring a Baby to Work?
Despite the tremendous support I received to bring my son to the CON, at times, I felt that it was unprofessional. Realizing that I was projecting upon myself the negative stereotypes about motherhood and child-rearing, I asked myself several key questions: What is unprofessional about being a mother? What is unprofessional about role modeling to my son the importance of strong work ethics? What is unprofessional about exposing a baby to intellectuals who are positive role models? I surmised that exposing my son to an environment replete with kind, smart, and diligent professionals could only help him learn the behaviors he needs to become successful in life.
It has been nineteen months since I started my motherhood journey, and I am still breathless about the kindness and support I received and continue to receive from my colleagues. Knowing that I had the option of taking maternity leave as well as the full support of the administrators who were not concerned about my productivity was reassuring.
His Majesty, Kasi, Among Nurses
By Miriam O. Ezenwa, PhD, RN
Nurses, my Angels
They gather to do what they do best
Fix the ills around the world
Care for those needing their healing presence
Enters, His Majesty, Kasi, drawing attention
Heads turn left and back, eyes twinkle starry-like
Smiles everywhere, hearts blooming light
Love! Love in the air for His Majesty
Calm nurses, my Angels, research retreat in progress
Work in teams, way of the future
Stand strong, hands locked in place
Embrace people from far and wide
Including those who don’t look alike
We are stronger in the spirit of the rainbow
Need to rest from the trip to here
Nurse Karen holding tight, heart pumping peace
The future is smart for His Majesty, nurses’ wisdom grows in strength
His Majesty needs a diaper change
Nurse Jeanne-Marie and nurse mommy to the rescue
Now, where were we?
Back to fixing the world
How about fixing how we secure our existence?
Many ways of teaching, the more the merrier, the merrier the better
Sleepy-sleepy, growth in rapid measure
Uncle Yingwei got this one, his manly touch is much needed
Once! Twice! Hunger and starvation
Hurry Mommy! Tummy thunders, feels like no end in sight
Mommy doting, needs now met
Sorry for my interruptions, I am just a baby
To resume business, let’s take stock
Goals are important, set now, assess in time
We are nurses, born to fix ills, from birth to death
Yes, nurses fix ills all the time
His Majesty needs a break, nap is golden
Nurse Versie won the prize, His Majesty is a treasure
Mommy close by inspecting every touch
New mommy, but instincts never fail
Back to research retreat, His Majesty is listening
Teams assembled, lead authors identified. Here! Here!
Oh no! Nature calls again, can’t ignore
Nurse Cindi in charge this time
Mommy always in tow, my bag in hand
Back again to wrap up, day went well
We must tell our story, stir the soul
His Majesty must depart now
The throne at home beckons, Queen Mommy in charge
Car must be readied, His Majesty commands comfort
Uncle Yingwei again to help, he has been there from day one
Goodbye, nurses. His Majesty must retreat
Till we meet again, a year from now
Assess your outcomes, inform His Majesty
Did I say that nurses are great?
Lest I forget, nurses are magnificent
You are my tribe, away from home
His Majesty, Kasi, enjoyed your company
Spread the word, it takes a tribe
A tribe of nurses, best any time
It helped me focus on enjoying motherhood and have the peace of mind related to a secure livelihood. I remind myself of how blessed I am for the inherent flexibility of my academic position. This feeling of gratitude propels me to work harder so that I do not disappoint myself or the trust the administrators bestowed upon me, to find an appropriate work-life balance required for success in academia.
My Tribe Away From Home
When my son was six weeks old, the CON had a faculty research retreat, and although I did not have a babysitter, I did not want to miss the retreat. I talked to my department chair about this problem, and she suggested that I bring my son to the retreat. The entire faculty in attendance surprised me with their support. At that moment, I knew that I had found my tribe at the UF CON even though I was 6,000 miles away from my home country, Nigeria. I captured the interactions between my son and my newly found tribe in the poem, His Majesty, Kasi, Among Nurses.
Take Home Message
Current knowledge suggests that many mothers in academia struggle to succeed as they balance motherhood and academic responsibilities. These challenges could be quadrupled for single mothers in academia who are immigrants and who may not have family support. I experienced many challenges being a single adoptive mother, particularly on the days that my son was sick; however, I always had the help of my colleagues, who personally assisted me in caring for him. Their support enabled me to excel at motherhood and my faculty role, and I am immensely grateful for this support. Based on my positive experiences, I encourage other universities around the United States to emulate the actions of the UF CON administrators and support mothers in academia as they balance two important aspects of their lives: motherhood and an academic career.
As increasing numbers of patients don’t speak English as their first language—or at all—the health care field is taking action. Here’s what’s happening and how you can become involved.
Imagine if you were in a hospital in a country where no one spoke English. Being in a strange hospital or other health care facility can be scary enough, but if you had no idea what was going on, it would make you more stressed—possibly making your health worse. You would feel incredibly vulnerable, as not knowing what was happening to you or if the workers could help you would be terrifying.
There was a time in the United States when that could happen. Although it shouldn’t happen, legally, anymore, as Allison Squires, PhD, RN, FAAN, explains, there is still a need for more bilingual nurses. “All health care facilities are required by law—including the Civil Rights Act and updated regulations in the Affordable Care Act—to provide patients who do not speak English with an interpreter,” says Squires, an associate professor at the New York University Rory Meyers College of Nursing. “The interpreter can be an in-person interpreter or a telephone or video interpreter to meet the requirements of the law.”
According to Squires, the increase in patients who haven’t developed English skills comes from two situations: the post-WWII legacy in which U.S. citizens came here as immigrants, and the most recent wave of immigration, which has matched or surpassed the immigration numbers of the early 20th century. “According to the Pew Research Center, one in five households in the U.S. speaks a language other than English at home. More communities are also becoming refugee resettlement cities across the U.S., which means increasing linguistic diversity in places that have historically only had English speakers,” says Squires. “The demand for nurses who speak another language is at an all-time high.”
Location, Location, Location
While all the sources whom we interviewed agree that Spanish is the most prevalent second language needed for patients, they also say that other languages are vital as well, depending on your region of the country. “Spanish is the priority language nationally. Other languages depend on where you live and who is migrating there,” says Squires. “For example, in the New York City and New England regions, there are now large numbers of Russian speakers. These individuals often come from former Soviet Union states where Russian was the official language. Other parts of the country, like Texas and Louisiana, have large numbers of Vietnamese speakers who came to the U.S. as refugees or immigrants. Other than Spanish, language demand is often specific to a local health care service area.”
“Spanish is the language in highest demand, particularly in Texas, California, Florida, and Illinois. In California, bilingual skills are needed for Spanish, Chinese, Vietnamese, and Russian,” says Terry Mort, who is manager of talent acquisition for VITAS Healthcare, the nation’s leading provider of end-of-life care. In the 14 states and the District of Columbia in which they provide care, VITAS Healthcare has also found the need for Mandarin, Cantonese, Tagalog, Hmong, Korean, and Creole.
“We constantly have to look at demographics of the communities we serve and pay attention to how they’re changing over time,” explains Mort. “Take California as an example. At one time, South Central Los Angeles was primarily an African American community, whereas today it’s predominately Hispanic. And as our services move into outlying areas of Los Angeles County, our needs change again because we encounter more families that are Filipino, Asian American, or Hispanic American.”
Currently, in South Florida, several VITAS hospice teams are solely Spanish speaking to appropriately serve their patients’ and community’s needs. “In California, a trilingual nurse—someone who speaks English, Spanish, and other language—would be in high demand,” says Mort.
Although particular languages may be needed to serve certain populations, there are also instances in which unexpected languages may also be required. For example, when there was a recent influx of patients from Puerto Rico at the University of Maryland Baltimore Washington Medical Center who needed health care after Hurricane Maria, there were more Spanish-speaking patients, says Edith Lopez Dobbins, RN. Dobbins is a JET Nurse, which stands for Just Excellent Timing and means that she is a full-time nurse who serves as supplemental staff for different nursing units throughout the hospital. As a result, she has noticed an overall increase in patients who speak Hindi and Korean as their first language.
“In the hospice profession particularly, we also have the challenge of end-stage dementia patients, who may revert to their language of origin as their disease progresses. We had a Russian patient who reverted to speaking Russian, but the family indicated he had not conversed in that language for more than 20 years. If that happens, it requires us to update our care plan so that our nurses and staff members can communicate effectively with these patients in a language they understand,” explains Karen Peterson, senior vice president and chief nursing officer for VITAS Healthcare. “The more languages our staff members can speak, the easier our job is.”
Benefits to Being Bilingual
Bilingual nurses on staff help open everyone up to another world as well as another set of patients to care for, says Vivian Carta Sanchez, DNP, ARNP, from Tenet Florida Physician Services. “Nurses who are bilingual can also serve as translators to communicate very important information from physicians who do not speak the language,” says Sanchez.
Squires says that if you work in a hospital, home care, long-term care, or rehabilitation, there are four key times when interpreters are needed—admission, patient education, consent, and discharge. “Using an interpreter during these times can help reduce your patient’s risk for readmission and complications,” explains Squires.
Having a nurse who is bilingual, rather than using a family member to translate, can be crucial. “Let’s say that I take five minutes to explain something in detail to a patient, and the family member who translates what I said to the patient takes about 30 seconds. I can tell that my patient isn’t hearing the same thing that I said—and that’s a risk to the patient, because they’re not getting complete information,” says Peterson. “It’s one of the reasons we prefer not to use family members as translators because they are part of the unit of care and also dealing with psychosocial issues associated with end of life.”
Another advantage to staffing or being a bilingual nurse is that when you are speaking the same language as a patient, the work you are doing will take the same amount of time that it does as when you are talking with an English-speaking patient, says Squires. There’s no need to be concerned about waiting for an interpreter to arrive or to have to deal with any issues that can occur when using an interpreter by phone. In addition, communicating with family members may also be easier. “That being said, as a bilingual nurse, if you are the first language nurse to work with the patient when they access health services—be they in the hospital, home care, or primary care—sometimes you spend more time with them initially because the patient is so happy to have someone who speaks their own language,” states Squires. “You find out all this other stuff that the patient held back because of the language barrier or issues with interpreter services. Another advantage of being a bilingual nurse is that you can quality check video or phone interpretation.”
Speaking to patients in their native language isn’t only about the words; it’s also about their culture. Dobbins says that while they use “language phone-lines” to keep at patients’ bedsides so that they, their families, and the health care workers can communicate—which is certainly helpful—the phones can also make talking more impersonal. “It makes patients and their families uncomfortable—possibly because it’s not just about language, it’s about culture. Most of the time, we use peers in the health care team who speak the same language as the patient for better communication and overall quality of care,” says Dobbins.
“Bilingualism is even more imperative in the hospice profession because there’s a lot of emotion and psychosocial aspects of language surrounding the dying process. Each person might have a different opinion or thought process around the issues related to dying. It’s unique in that people may have difficulty conveying their thoughts and feelings, even in the same language, simply because it’s about death,” explains Peterson. “Some patients or family members can’t even say the word ‘hospice,’ so they find a way not to say it. But when our nurses, families and patients understand each other’s language and cultural nuances, we’re more confident that patients are making the right decisions and receiving the best possible care because everyone understands each other.”
Knowing about patients’ culture has become so important that the Chamberlain University College of Nursing began offering a Hispanic concentration on its Phoenix, AZ campus in May 2016. Pam Fuller, EdD, MN, RN, the Phoenix campus president, states that this concentration doesn’t aim to attract Hispanic nurses, but rather to appeal to nurses who want to care specifically for this culturally diverse group. This concentration is offered to anyone who is enrolled in the university’s pre-licensure BSN program. Because of its ability to logistically provide clinical experiences for students who are enrolled in the Hispanic concentration, the Phoenix campus volunteered to pilot it. “The local hospitals and health care centers currently serve Hispanic patients and families every day, and Chamberlain helps provide nurses and care to these local communities,” says Fuller.
“Providing nursing care requires not just an appropriate educational degree and a license, but also crosses boundaries of human dignity and respect. Many, if not all, hospitals and care centers are challenged to communicate more effectively with their patients, regardless of cultural background. Chamberlain specifically launched the Hispanic concentration based on information from hospitals in our local markets,” explains Fuller. “When a patient is in pain or in need of health care, they tend to revert to what is comfortable to them, culturally. If you are culturally more comfortable with your own language and traditions, if there is someone who can speak—at least a little bit—the language you speak, it makes the care that much more effective and personal.”
“Chamberlain’s Hispanic concentration is not a language program. This concentration exposes students to the Hispanic language and culture and allows for 25% of their clinical experience to be placed with a Hispanic patient. This gives them real-time experience in serving the Hispanic population,” says Fuller. “Any student—regardless of their personal cultural background—may enter this concentration…The goal of the Hispanic concentration is to educate students and expose them to the culture and language of the Hispanic community to provide an improved level of care to this population.”
Attracting Appropriate Personnel
How can facilities go about recruiting bilingual nurses? Squires believes that a combination of actions could help. Nursing schools need to recognize local demand for bilingual services and restructure curricula to help ensure the success of English as a Foreign Language (EFL) students, says Squires. “Even now, EFL students have lower pass rates on the NCLEX-RN exam, and that’s not helping to meet our need for more bilingual nurses. Schools need to change how they teach and support EFL students so they have the same success rates as English speakers,” Squires says.
“Organizations should give bonuses to people who are bilingual to encourage better communication,” says Sanchez.
As for becoming bilingual, Squires says that to achieve the level of fluency to be able to effectively and safely communicate with patients about health issues, nurses would be required to undergo years of study or at least a six-month immersion in a country where the language that they want to learn is spoken. “Having just a few words or phrases can be helpful for recognizing when a patient is in pain or [has] toileting needs, but when it comes to the complex communication needs that go with admission for services, patient education, consent, and discharge, you really need to have what’s called sociolinguistic competence in a language. That’s something that your employer should help you certify or do it on your own to make yourself more marketable,” says Squires.
At the end of the day, being bilingual or having bilingual nurses on staff is all about patients’ safety and comfort. “As a nurse, many of my most rewarding moments have to do with going the extra mile to help a Spanish-speaking family during their hospital stay,” says Dobbins.
Kyana Brathwaite, founder and CEO of KB CALS- Caring Advocacy & Liaison Services, worked as a critical care nurse when she hurt her shoulder during a patient transfer.
“Our patient population is getting heavier [and] it is not always realistic to pull colleagues from different areas/departments to help. My true issue was not with the injury—although unfortunate, they do happen—my issue was with how my particular situation was handled after the injury by both management and the entity I worked for,” she explains.
For these reasons, the pain of her injury and the lack of support by management, Brathwaite chose not to stay at the bedside. Would she have stayed had circumstances been different?“Prior to the injury, I was considering staying at the bedside for at least five more years to give me time to plan the direction in which I wanted to take my nursing career.”Although she did plan to continue her career eventually, she would have given solid years to suffering bedside nursing specialties.
In fact, many nurses run from the bedside as soon as possible because conditions are so deplorable. They look for jobs in advanced practice, teaching, and other non-bedside related areas of nursing, while the number of nurses taking care of the most critical patients continues to dwindle.
Here are four reasons nurses leave the bedside and some ideas as to how to make them stay.
1. New Grad Education
New grads can go into a bedside job and not know exactly what they are in for. In nursing school, clinicals usually don’t go beyond two to three patients per student so they are not exactly exposed to the real-life rigors and stresses that come with the life of a bedside life—and cultural shock is a very real phenomenon.
“Nursing students are constantly told by faculty, peers, mentors, and experienced nurses what bedside nursing is ‘really like,’ says Greg Eagerton, DNP, RN, an associate professor at the University of Alabama at Birmingham School of Nursing. “However, it is like the first time we ride the bike by ourselves…The same is true for new nurses; their hands are held throughout their training and then the day comes when they are ‘alone’ and it’s a little frightening. They now have the sole responsibility for their patient’s care, their patient’s life—and that can be daunting. It’s also the reason we always encourage team support from their mentors, their more experienced peers, and from all members of the health care team, including physicians, therapists, support staff, etc.”
Although this is true, new grads often express intense dislike of their new role as a bedside nurse, and they immediately want to move to another branch of the profession. Is it that the nurse is not prepared or that the job is simply too difficult? It certainly sounds like management is trying to accommodate new nurses, but a quick search of internet nurse boards will reveal new nurses in despair. Perhaps more intensive job shadowing will allow new grads to see what bedside nurses do. Perhaps more realistic teaching would also go a long way toward helping them. Whatever the answer, new grads are a special population that needs attention—though it already gets quite a bit—to keep them safe and happy at the bedside.
2. Staffing Ratios
Another issue that chases nurses from the bedside is poor staffing ratios. It can be overwhelming for one nurse to have eight to ten patients to themselves. Not only is it unsafe, it is also stressful, and many nurses would rather find a new job than to put their licenses and their mental health on the line like that. For this reason, staffing ratios are important to consider when examining the loss of bedside nurses.
“I do not feel staffing ratios is the main driving factor,” argues Ken Shanahan, MSN, RN, CCRN-K, clinical nursing director at Tufts Medical Center. “One of the main reasons I feel this way is because the only state with staffing ratios is California and yet they have the most nurse strikes. These strikes are actually increasing dramatically and are something we will need to address as a profession. The work environment is the most important factor and number of nurses or ratios is only a component of the working environment. There are many other components that we are not hitting the mark on that would help create a healthy work environment.”
Although a large portion of nurses would disagree with Shanahan’s opinion on the importance of staffing ratios, he does have a point: they are not all that is involved here. Getting the floors better staffed is only one part of the puzzle, but addressing pressing issues such as horizontal violence is needed, too. Everyone knows about staffing ratios, but few realize they are only one prop to hold up a very large house meant to keep nurses at the bedside.
3. Compassion Fatigue and Burnout
Compassion fatigue and burnout are the psychological components that keep nurses from staying at the bedside. The two are closely related but are not the same. Burnout, in short, is frustration with the situation and is typified by anger. Compassion fatigue is an exhaustion of the ability to extend oneself emotionally anymore and is typified by depression. Please note, these are very simple definitions and they are not exhaustive. Both of these conditions can occur together, and neither is pleasant. Nurses have had their lives broken over these issues, and no one wants to go through that. How, then, do we solve this problem?
“Burnout and compassion fatigue are concerns for direct care providers in all professions,” explains Eagerton. He suggests the following measures to help support staff:
- Leaders should be visible and approachable.
- Work schedules should allow adequate time off between shifts.
- Adequate breaks should be provided during the work shift so that staff have down time.
- Schedule time for staff to have discussions about what stressors they are experiencing that may lead to burnout and fatigue.
- Create opportunities for staff to be involved in activities that allow them to do things that are not direct patient care but have meaning to them, such as committee membership, attending professional conferences, and so on.
- Have resources available for nursing staff in addition to their managers to discuss their stressors, such as chaplains, mental health professionals, and counselors.
- Have dedicated space(s) on or near the units where they work where they can have some quiet time or time to eat their meal or have their break without interruption.
With these ideas in place, nurses can have a better shot at overcoming compassion fatigue and burnout. When these are not a factor or are a mitigated factor, the more a nurse can feel happier staying at the bedside.
Nursing is definitely a contact sport, as stories like Brathwaite’s prove. Transferring patients is getting more and more difficult with increased body weights. In addition, various specialties are more susceptible to transfer related injury. For instance, operating room nurses are at great risk because they must move patients who are unconscious and essentially dead weight. However, that doesn’t make your typical bedside nurse any less at risk. Moving and lifting are just as much a part of the job, and mechanical equipment is usually not available to help.
“There is only one of you, [and] there will always be more patients,” says Nick Angelis, CRNA, MSN, author of How to Succeed in Anesthesia School (And RN, PA, or Med School) and cofounder of BEHAVE Wellness.“If no one is available to perform a task safely with you, don’t do it. Hospitals always push putting the patients first, but you’re a danger to patients if you give and give until your weekly schedule must also include time for massage and chiropractor appointments. Flu vaccines, unsafe equipment, dangerous staff ratios, risk of physical harm from unruly patients because hospital security resembles nursing home patients—these all require putting yourself first.”
It really does come down to this: Nurses need to learn how to put themselves first. If you can’t lift that 300-pound patient, then don’t even try, no matter how much it needs to be done. Similarly, hospitals need to make allowances for nurse injuries. Providing mechanical lifts, better security, and education about safety could go a long way towards protecting nurses and keeping them at the bedside.
In the end, the question of keeping nurses at the bedside is definitely multifactorial—and controversial. Patients have been cared for all this time with the methods we’ve been using, so why change? The reason to change is that the nursing shortage is real, and it isn’t what you think. It isn’t a lack of trained nurses. It is a lack of trained nurses willing to work. If we can make the bedside more appealing to these nurses who have run for cover, perhaps the nursing shortage wouldn’t really exist at all.