At a point in my career, a devastating event deeply affected me. One of my former nursing students, a vibrant young Black woman, tragically lost her life and the life of her newborn during childbirth. Despite access to healthcare, she fell victim to maternal complications that ended in her untimely death. This loss was not an isolated incident but rather indicative of a more significant crisis facing Black mothers in the United States – one that is not just a healthcare issue but rather a matter of social justice and equity.nurses-remain-the-catalyst-for-transformation-in-maternal-healthcare

In recognition of National Nurses Week, it’s crucial to reflect on nurses’ profound impact on healthcare, particularly in addressing health disparities. This years theme, Nurses Make the Difference,” resonates deeply with me, as I have dedicated my career to advocating for improved maternal health outcomes for Black women and preparing nurses for careers in healthcare aimed at advancing health equity.

Every maternal death is a devastating tragedy that leaves a hole in families – representing a forever-altered dynamic. Perhaps even worse, statistics from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention show that most maternal deaths are preventable.

This staggering data also demonstrates that Black women are nearly three times more likely to die from pregnancy-related complications than white women. Morbid racial disparities such as these do not have a place in the 21st century. Still, they are exacerbated by socioeconomic factors, a shortage of providers, and a lack of access to quality healthcare.

Central to this work is the recognition of the lived experiences of Black women. Factors such as poverty, barriers to healthcare access, and lifestyle choices are frequently used to explain the disparity in Black maternal health; however, these factors alone are inadequate to explain the problem. Healthcare providers often fail to see their patients as individuals with unique needs and concerns. Implicit bias and cultural incompetence compound these disparities, leading to substandard care and poor outcomes.

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To effect meaningful change, we must address these root causes head-on. This includes increasing access to quality healthcare, fostering diversity and inclusivity in healthcare practices, and educating healthcare workers to be culturally competent and understand the social determinants of health.

Increasing access to quality healthcare is essential, and addressing the nursing shortage is a top priority when it comes to Black maternal health. By creating new programs and expanding existing ones that reach future healthcare workers, we can help prepare the next generation of diverse nurses who can reduce the burden on the current population of healthcare workers and meet the evolving needs of society – especially Black women.

As a nurse educator with over 18 years of experience in higher education, I believe education is integral to creating positive, sustainable change. At Walden University, where I serve as the associate dean for the BSN program, our online curriculum emphasizes the social determinants of health and the role of nurses in addressing health disparities. I am particularly excited about a new course we launched this spring, Advocating for Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion in Healthcare.” This course, among others at institutions like Columbia and Frontier Universities, challenges students to confront their biases and privilege while equipping them with the tools to advocate for inclusive and equitable care. Our focus areas include implicit bias, systemic racism, microaggressions, health disparities, the healthcare ecosystem, and advocacy strategies to improve healthcare outcomes. These programs, which establish a better understanding of the unique experiences of our diverse population, are just a part of the solution. Patient outcomes can also be significantly improved by changing the face of those who deliver it. With minority populations experiencing disproportionate rates of disease and death, it is clear we need to create pathways to the nursing profession for all, regardless of ethnic, religious, or financial factors.

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One way to do this is by providing educational access to those who may not yet have had the opportunity, which can mean emphasizing online education programs. This approach enables students to earn their degrees from where they live and encourages the development of nurses who practice within their communities, reflecting the communities they serve. This is a proven way to improve the healthcare outcomes of minorities, and it has the additional benefit of combatting the nursing shortage, particularly in rural areas.

Nurses, educators, policymakers, and advocates must join forces to dismantle the systemic barriers perpetuating healthcare inequality. Our industry has a unique opportunity to drive change and promote health equity by elevating the voices of marginalized communities, challenging implicit biases, and advocating for policies that prioritize equity and justice.

As we celebrate National Nurses Week, let us recommit ourselves to compassion, advocacy, and equity principles. Together, we can make a difference in the lives of Black mothers and ensure that every woman receives the quality care she deserves with the understanding she needs.

Jamil Norman
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