The fundamental mission of every healthcare provider is to first do no harm. Unfortunately, however, for far too long systemic inequities in the healthcare system have perpetrated and perpetuated harm. 

Both implicit and explicit biases have strongly determined healthcare processes, including informing how patient pain is understood, diagnosed, and treated. Stereotypes relating to gender, race, and ethnicity have contributed to a pattern of delayed and erroneous diagnosis and inappropriate or insufficient palliative care. And as a result, untold numbers of female and minority patients have been consigned to suffer needlessly.

But there is hope, and nurses are helping to provide it. By prioritizing workforce diversity, qualified healthcare professionals enjoy greater career opportunities, and diverse patients increasingly receive the pain control they need. This article examines the importance of diversity in the healthcare industry and its implications for improving palliative care for diverse patients.

Biases and the Treatment of Pain

Generally, healthcare providers enter the field because they genuinely want to help people. Of course, financial security and social prestige are a perk, but no matter your particular role, the work is incredibly emotionally, cognitively, and physically demanding. Nevertheless, it is a profession you enter or remain in with a sense of a higher calling and a deeper purpose.

But, no matter how well-intentioned, healthcare providers are still very much human, and as such, they are shaped, both consciously and unconsciously, by the society in which they live. And that means that systemic biases have almost inevitably seeped into the care provider’s consciousness, contributing to the formation of false and dangerous stereotypes.

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Research has shown, for example, that racial stereotypes concerning African-Americans have contributed strongly to the mismanagement of Black patients’ pain. These stereotypes are generally rooted in misperceptions of biological differences between African-American and Caucasian patients. This includes the false belief that Black patients have a higher pain tolerance than whites and the false presumption that Black patients are more likely to abuse drugs.

Implicit and explicit gender biases are also ubiquitous in modern medical practice. For example, female patients complaining of pain are more likely to experience treatment delays than male patients reporting the same or similar symptoms. Women’s pain symptoms, for instance, are significantly more likely to be attributed to emotional or psychological etiologies than men’s. This increases the likelihood that their pain will go untreated or under-treated, and severe disease symptoms will go unrecognized, thus delaying treatment.

Diversity and Cultural Competence in Healthcare

Nurses are at the front lines of patient care. They provide the majority of hands-on patient care, and, in general, their interactions with patients are more frequent and substantive than those of physicians. 

For this reason, diversity in the nursing sector is particularly critical in redressing inequities in treating patients’ pain. Culturally competent patient care almost inevitably ensures that nurses derive from various ethnic, racial, socioeconomic, and gender backgrounds.

More specifically, this means that nurses with high cultural competence will better understand, recognize, and respond to culturally-specific manifestations of patient pain.  

For instance, women or patients from specific cultural or religious backgrounds may feel reluctant or unable to express their symptoms, especially if these pertain to “taboo” areas. Nurses from similar backgrounds are more likely to have the cultural competence to identify and overcome these cultural taboos.

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This enables them to formulate strategies that help patients express their concerns in more comfortable and culturally acceptable ways. In addition, by enhancing the dialogue with patients, nurses can provide physicians with more comprehensive and accurate case notes, increasing treatment efficacy.

Addressing Medical Anxiety

Promoting diversity in nursing doesn’t just equip healthcare teams to understand and address cultural differences among patient populations effectively. Diversity also enables healthcare teams to recognize and remediate systemic healthcare disparities’ profound and long-enduring impacts.

There is mounting evidence, for example, that minority patients are far less likely than Caucasians to be satisfied with their quality of medical care. Deficiencies in minority patient care can be linked to various factors, from the lack of healthcare access to a shortage of interpreters for patients who do not speak English.

These care deficiencies can instigate severe medical anxiety in patients, particularly for those who have experienced significant physical or emotional trauma in past medical encounters. Nurses from similar backgrounds may have also experienced such challenges in the healthcare system, whether for themselves or someone they love. And as such, they are more likely to be able to accurately anticipate or ascertain signs of medical anxiety in female and minority patients.

Equipped with such insight, diverse nurses can lend a measure of patient support and empathy that comes from understanding and experience. And, importantly, they can more effectively advocate for patients and their unique needs, particularly in treating pain.

The Takeaway

Disparities in the healthcare system have for too long led to deficiencies in palliative care for minority and female patients. By promoting diversity in the nursing profession, however, the needless suffering to which diverse patients have been subjected can finally end. 

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Amanda Winstead
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