Shifting demographics and other market conditions have created a greater need for minority nurses, particularly in certain roles. With a growing multicultural and aging population in the United States, the need for medical case managers to serve patients of various ethnic and minority groups has significantly increased. Regulatory reform—specifically, the enactment of the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, which ushered in new preventable readmission requirements for hospitals, along with new models of care (e.g., patient-centered medical homes and physician-hospital organizations) and more prevalent consumer-driven health care plans—has created new opportunities for minority nurses in case management. For minority nurses whose goals are to help serve these largely underserved patient populations and advance in their careers, it is important to understand the changing health care landscape.
Let’s look first at our nation’s changing demographics. The graying of America has resulted in more Americans living longer with more age-related, chronic medical conditions, ranging from arthritis, hypertension, and heart disease to hearing impairments and cataracts. According to the National Academy on an Aging Society (NAAS), almost 100 million Americans have chronic conditions, with millions more developing chronic conditions as they age. By 2040, the NAAS estimates that the number of people in the United States with chronic conditions will increase by 50%. The cost of medical care for Americans with chronic conditions could approach $864 billion in 2040—almost double what it was in 1995. While the most common chronic conditions are the same for blacks and whites, the conditions are generally more serious among minority populations, particularly individuals with lower incomes.
Another major factor in our changing health care landscape is the higher percentage of racially and ethnically diverse individuals. An AARP Bulletin article titled “Where We Stand: New Realities in Aging” reported that minorities are expected to comprise 42% of the American population by 2030. Currently, the United States has 150 different ethnic cultures represented within its population, with over 300 different languages spoken and a wide range of cultural nuances reflected. For health care providers, this broad spectrum of cultural diversity in its patients introduces higher incidences of certain conditions, while also posing challenges relating to care and communications.
Addressing Cultural Challenges
On the disease front, we know that certain ethnic groups are more prone to certain medical conditions. Many health care providers and insurers are responding with targeted initiatives, such as: the Chinese Community Health Plan’s Diabetes Self Management: A Cultural Approach initiative to enhance diabetes knowledge and management in the Chinese population; Excellus Health Plan’s Healthy Beginnings Prenatal Care program to decrease NICU admission rates for African American teens; and Med One Medical Group’s Adherence to Hypertension Treatment and Measurement project to educate English, Arabic, and Vietnamese-speaking hypertensive patients.
Beyond the obvious language and communication barriers that can prevent quality health care delivery and optimum patient outcomes, there are cultural issues that, if mismanaged, can also interfere with providing quality health care. For example, in Latin culture, religious healing, praying to certain saints, and relying on religious symbols to address health issues are not uncommon. Patients of African descent are inclined to believe in the healing power of nature and their religion. Within Asian groups, achieving balance between yin and yang, using certain herbs and foods, and relying on acupuncture to unblock the free flow of energy (chi) are common practices. Health behaviors also vary among ethnic groups. Armenians are tolerant of county health facilities, whereas the Vietnamese regard them and the related bureaucracy associated with government facilities as degrading. They, therefore, prefer receiving care in a physicians’ office, even if higher costs are incurred.
There also are differences relating to how certain minority and ethnic groups want to hear about their medical conditions. Did you know that the majority of African Americans and European Americans believe patients should be informed of terminal illnesses, while fewer Mexican Americans and Korean Americans agree? Family values relating to health care decisions also differ among minority and ethnic groups. Within the Mexican, Filipino, Chinese, and Iranian cultures, for example, there is the belief that a patient’s family should be first informed about a loved one’s poor prognosis so they can decide whether or not the patient should be informed. Obviously, these variables and many others are important for health care professionals to understand when caring for a patient. This is an area where minority nurses of different backgrounds and cultures can be a tremendous asset to their patients and to the overall health care system. Studies have demonstrated that case managers help strengthen primary care. This is particularly true when patients have complex or multiple medical conditions—as many elderly people do—or chronic conditions such as diabetes or chronic obstructive pulmonary disease.
Combating Disparities in Health Care
It is widely known that disparities exist in the care of minority patients. While this is more pronounced in rural primary care practices, it holds true across the board. An Institute of Medicine report found that “racial and ethnic minorities tend to receive a lower quality of health care than non-minorities, even when access-related factors, such as insurance status and income, are controlled.” Other studies also have explored these disparities, including Aetna’s “Breast Health Ethnic Disparity Initiative and Research Study” and Health Alliance Plan’s “Addressing Disparities in Breast Cancer Screening.” Collectively, they further make the case for minority nurse case managers to advocate for minority patients.
Related research supports the fact that, where minority case managers are in place, there is a significant improvement in patient outcomes. This was evident in a study of rural African American patients with diabetes mellitus where it was found that they were able to better control their blood sugar levels with a redesigned care management model, which incorporated nurse-led case management and structured education visits into rural primary care practices.
From Public Sector to Hospitals, Physicians’ Offices, and Entrepreneurial Settings
There is no question that, given today’s health care landscape, minority nurses have a great opportunity to help make a difference in the care of minority groups and enjoy heightened career fulfillment and potential advancement. Among the settings minority nurses can consider are:
• The public sector—serving within the Veterans Health Administration system for our veterans, many of whom are minorities, or the Indian Health System for our nation’s native American populations;
• Hospitals—helping hospitals achieve lower rates of preventable hospital readmissions, caring for minority and ethnic patients, and serving as a patient advocate and liaison with family members;
• Physicians’ offices—facilitating patient-physician communications, assuring appropriate records are communicated between treating physicians, monitoring patients’ adherence to treatment plans, and identifying any family and/or home issues that might affect a patient’s well-being;
• Financial advisors and estate planning attorneys—working with these professionals who are becoming increasingly more involved in the financial aspects of their clients’ health care and the costs associated with their care, as well as protecting their clients’ estates;
• Independent practice—working for a case management firm or establishing your own practice.
Independent practices present an opportunity for minority nurses to shape their own destiny and financial reward. Through one’s own practice, a minority nurse can focus more fully on his or her patients’ well-being without the over-emphasis on cost containment we see in many other practice settings, especially hospitals. These nurses can decide that they want to specifically dedicate their practice to a certain minority and/or ethnic group. They can establish a truly patient-centered care management business model, performing health risk assessments, providing health coaching, disease education and management, assisting with patient transitions of care, coordinating health care resources on behalf of their patients, reviewing hospital bills, helping patients assemble their health records, and providing end-of-life care coordination.
Based on a 2013 survey by the National Council of State Boards of Nursing and The Forum of State Nursing Workforce Centers, nurses from minority backgrounds represent 17% of the registered nurse (RN) workforce. Currently, the RN population consists of 83% white/Caucasian, 6% African American, 6% Asian, 3% Hispanic/Latino, 1% American Indian/Alaska Native, 1% Native Hawaiian/Pacific Islander, and 1% other. Given the increasing shortage of nurses, combined with the growing demand based on our shifting demographics, it appears that the time has never been better for minority nurses, while fewer in number, to take center stage in case management.
Catherine M. Mullahy, RN, BS, CRRN, CCM, is president of Mullahy & Associates www.mullahyassociates.com, and author of The Case Manager’s Handbook, Fifth Edition.