With a Better Health Through Better Understanding theme, Minority Health Month promotes the importance of providing information to diverse groups and populations that is both linguistically and culturally competent. When individuals and communities have access to health information, resources, and services that identifies and respects others’ formal and casual languages, religious and cultural behaviors and beliefs, and is provided with easy and convenient access to accurate health resources, the potential for better health outcomes is greatly improved.
Individuals who have accurate information that relates directly to how people in the community live are excellent ambassadors for promoting health information. As healthcare providers, nurses can help advocate for healthy lifestyle choices and activities. But if they aren’t taking into account a patient’s cultural beliefs and traditions, those recommendations have less chance of actually being put into effect.
Nurses are in an excellent position to help patients by being aware of their cultural norms around language and dietary choices and guidelines, activity choices, mental health approaches or stigmas, sexuality, and even how family decisions are made. Each of these areas can have a significant impact in a patient’s choices and so each decision is frequently made through several layers.
For Minority Health Month, the Office of Minority Health has several fact sheets and guidelines that can be downloaded for free. This Health Literacy and Limited English Proficiency: 2023 Reading List offers resources and links for nurses to find additional information that relates to communities in general and specific considerations for diverse populations. As a nurse, you may work with several populations and understanding those cultures will help you treat your patients more effectively. If they aren’t proficient in whatever the primary language of your practice is, work to help find a translator and to offer printed information that’s been translated to their primary language.
Building up a rapport is as important as letting people know the straight facts about minority health. You can do that in several ways, but having an open and curious approach to each patient’s life is a good beginning. Ask questions that are open and honest, and always ask permission first. Many people will be more willing to talk when someone asks permission to talk about a difficult or potentially embarrassing subject. If they decline to talk about something, respect that as difficult as it might be. It’s likely that under additional pressure, they might not give you a full and accurate answer anyhow.
If you can build trust, your patients will be more likely to open up to you about their concerns, about what’s bothering them, and about what’s not working for them. You’ll be in a better position to help them find an approach to long-term health that will be sustainable.
Ensuring that patient’s understand what you are relating to them and having information they can access or take home in a language they are proficient in, will put everyone ahead of the game. That linguistic and cultural competence is an essential piece of a comprehensive approach to minority health education and wellness.
Each year, the National Institute on Minority Health and Health Disparities designates April as Minority Health Month to help promote information and understanding of the health disparities and conditions in minority populations.
In recognition of the continuing pandemic and the disproportionate toll COVID-19 has taken, and continues to take, on minority communities, the theme for 2022’s Minority Health Month is Give Your Community a Boost! The theme centers on the importance of vaccination and getting boosters to help control the spread of and the toll from COVID-19.
They can act as minority health ambassadors in their communities to promote the importance of screenings and healthy behaviors.
They can educate patients and give them information and resources that can help them take control over and prevent some common diseases.
They can act as a support for their loved ones to make sure they have accurate information and know how to work with their healthcare providers for the best possible outcomes.
They can care for themselves to act as role models and to live the healthiest lives possible.
Racial and ethnic minority populations continue to experience the greater impact of many diseases while also struggling with resources and access to high-quality, culturally competent healthcare.
Patients want to meet with healthcare providers who look like them and who understand some of the cultural influences that can impact their healthcare choices and options. If a nurse understands that instructing a patient to avoid all high-fat or high-salt foods might not be possible in many families, then a more culturally sensitive plan can be worked on.
Patients don’t want to feel judged and so understanding, for instance, how a patient shops for food, accesses transportation, plans a list, and cooks meals, and for how many people, can shape a more collaborative and acceptable treatment plan and likely be one that is more successful.
In keeping with this year’s theme of Give Your Community a Boost!, nurses can work with patients around the health equity of the pandemic. They can make sure patients understand how to access vaccines and boosters, determine if they need assistance with transportation, ask if they have supports in place if needed or a plan to cope with potential side effects, and have accurate information about vaccination. Nurses can stress the evidence and the science behind the shots while being sensitive to any mistrust or caution based on misinformation around the vaccines. Patients also need information about the vaccines’ protective benefits in minority communities where COVID-19 raises the risk for hospitalizations and deaths.
During this month that’s devoted to minority health, nurses are excellent educators for their patients and their communities. The more they can help support people to take an active role in their health, to advocate for themselves and their loved ones, and to understand the importance of their own conditions or risk factors, the healthier, and stronger, communities will become.
I sprained my knee. That’s how I found out my 14-year-old daughter was struggling with her gender identity. I was combing the house for an ace wrap and found it in the dirty clothes basket in Karen’s room. It looked like it had been through a war. No elastic left. Karen had always been a tomboy. She wanted to mow the lawn, play with bugs, play sports…she was always moving and had zero interest in “girl stuff.” I took her to Claire’s in the mall a few times and she looked totally lost as I picked out headbands, earrings, and miscellaneous froufrou. I guess she was sending signals for years, but I wasn’t picking up the phone.
I don’t know how it dawned on me that she was binding her breasts. It just came to me and so I asked her, “Are you binding your breasts?” She started crying.
“I was born in the wrong body!” She said between racking sobs.
I’m ashamed to say it, but my first thought was, “Why me?” I took her to the pediatrician. She told me that this is just a phase. Karen is hanging out with the wrong people. Monitor her closely. Watch her friends. Ignore it and it will go away.
I was already pretty obsessive about who she hung out with. On play dates I would make sure I went in the house and met everyone involved. When I took her and her friends to the mall, I quizzed the friends about their home life and their grades. I thought I was doing everything right. Over the next year, our relationship deteriorated. I found marijuana, vape pens, bongs…she became a stranger to me. It was all yelling and grounding and taking the phone away. She didn’t do homework. She hated me. So much for the pediatrician’s advice.
I reached out to one of the pediatricians I had worked with and respected and asked him to recommend a doctor who worked with transgender teens. I made an appointment. Dr. Mitch spent an hour with Karen…without me in the room. When Karen came out of the appointment, a weight seemed to have lifted from her shoulders. Later, Karen told me the nurse had given her a shot to “make my period go away.” I was beside myself. I called the office and demanded to speak with the doctor. My rights as a parent had been violated. How dare he give my child something without discussing it with me first. I wasn’t against the shot so much as being cut out of the decision.
Dr. Mitch called me back that afternoon and spent an hour on the phone with me. Can you imagine? An hour. He patiently discussed what Karen was going through and informed me that children over 12 can get birth control without parental consent. I had no idea. He explained that Karen had gender dysphoria: The constant feeling that her body was the wrong sex. Karen had anxiety, anger, feelings of hopelessness, and diminished self-worth. My child was in pain. Thus, started my education in transgender children. I knew by now that it wasn’t a phase but, I have to admit, I was still hoping that it would go away. My own feelings of self-worth had taken a hit, honestly. What kind of a parent was I? How could I let this happen?
WPATH (www.wpath.org) is the World Professional Association for Transgender Health and they write the standards of care for transgender health care. Dr. Mitch suggested I look over the information on the website and I did. It answered a lot of questions. Dr. Mitch assured me that there was nothing wrong with me and that Karen was always going to be my child. He suggested that if Karen wants to dress like a boy, it’s not permanent. He suggested I just back off and let her do what makes her comfortable. Of course, I was terrified that she would start taking hormones and have permanent changes that she would regret later. Dr. Mitch told me that Karen needs to live as a boy for a year and see a therapist every week to discuss her journey to make sure it’s the right thing. He wouldn’t prescribe hormones until Karen has been living as a boy for a year and his therapist signed off on the treatment.
Karen started seeing therapists who specialized in transgender teens. Insurance was a constant battle. The quality of the therapists was spotty. Karen, now Tony, was angry and impatient. He wanted testosterone now, now, now. He went to group meetings with other transgender teens and I think he saw how many of them struggled with no parental support. I remember seeing a young boy with long lanky hair and a defeated demeanor at a couple of his pizza party groups. I saw him, or her I should say, walking there and walking home. I really felt sad for this kid who wanted to be a girl so much. Tony told me the girl was grinding up DVDs and eating them because she heard the plastic works like estrogen. I really felt terrible for her. I determined that I was not going to be like her parents. However, I was not going to let Tony make any irrevocable decisions until we both were sure this was the way forward.
That year was a bit of a blur. Lots of appointments, Tony being angry. Kids and teachers at his school wouldn’t get with his name change and preferred pronoun. I blew it myself many times. I was so used to Karen, my daughter…not Tony my son. Problems at school came to a head and Tony pulled out of high school in favor of going to an alternative school. Things got better and worse, better and worse. I was at my wits’ end. All Tony wanted was to be seen by others as he saw himself, as a boy, not a girl. He bought some binders online and that worked, but they were uncomfortable and over time, left him bruised and misshapen. His girlish hips and curvy legs were problematic.
When he finally got the go ahead to start testosterone, he was so excited. Looking back, I think he thought that once he started hormone therapy, he would magically change into another person. It wasn’t like that. He still had problems with his old friends misgendering him. He still was behind in school. He still had all his old problems. That first year was the angry year. From my perspective, things got worse once he started testosterone. The doctor assured me that it wasn’t the hormones, it was just teenage angst. Tony went from twice a month dosing to once a week, halving the dose. I don’t know if that made things better or worse or didn’t do anything. I was scared, Tony was miserable.
Over that first year of testosterone, Tony gradually got more stable. I guess it was probably two years all in all before Tony got the body he wanted…or close enough that he can live with it. He’s 18 now and looks very boyish. He doesn’t bind his breasts anymore, but he does hunch his shoulders and tape his nipples flat when he goes out. We’ve discussed top surgery and I think the conclusion is that he can live with a small chest for now. There’s no talk of bottom surgery. I think Tony is finding a new middle ground between being a boy and being a girl. I tell him he doesn’t have to be binary, either/or. He can just be himself and I’m cool with whatever that self is. He is OK with being a boy with breasts. I know that given a choice he would choose not to have them. However, for now, the discomfort and risks of surgery are not worth the benefit.
Being a teenager is difficult in the best of circumstances. Tony is an adopted immigrant from Vietnam with a white single gay parent and born in the wrong body. Is it a surprise that his teen years were stormy? Not really. Tony worked all summer long at Chipotle and saved up his money. He bought his own car. He works two jobs. He’s smart and responsible. He’s good with money. He’s still afraid of school. He was tormented in high school and I think he has a lot of anxiety about going to college. I gently nudge him, but there is no hurry. He’s just about as perfect a person as I’ve ever seen. The trauma of those years of his transitioning is with us both, but gradually fading. I’d say he is a success story. He’s my son.
A 2017 study done in the Journal of the American College of Cardiology demonstrates that some plant-based diets can be a larger factor in developing heart disease. The study was done using two groups of people. One group ate plant-based diets that were primarily composed of processed grains which also inevitably had added sugar. These included things like corn chips, potatoes, cookies, cakes, pies, bread, etc. This group had very low consumption of whole grains and whole vegetables.
The second group’s diet had more whole foods meaning meals consisting of vegetables and grains that had very little processing.
The group eating plant-based processed foods developed increased cardiac risk markers even though they were eating a vegetarian based diet.
Here’s some healthful and helpful steps in starting on a plant-based diet:
Start slow. Take a look at what you are eating already. Figure out a day or two per week that you can reduce animal products and replace them with nutritious plant-based foods.
Learn to prepare and use legumes and beans. These will be the foundation for your plant-based protein replacements. Chilis, soups, salads and stir fry can use beans and legumes as primary protein.
Include vegetables and fruits that contain a good source of Vitamin B12 and Iron. Some of these foods include apricots, seaweed, kale, collard greens, blackstrap molasses and spinach. These two nutrients are the most common ones that can be deficient in plant based diets.
Supplement initially with Vitamin B12 and potentially Iron.
Slowly introduce desserts that satisfy your sweet tooth but don’t contain a lot of added sugar. There’s plenty of ‘vegetarian desserts’, so be careful. Seasonal fruit, especially when ripe, can be very satisfying. Try to avoid the number of ‘whole food’ desserts which contain processed grains and sugar as well.
Check out a good cook book or follow people or groups on social media that post new and easy recipes.
From electronic health records (EHRs) to smartphone apps, today’s health IT tools can help nurses develop innovative strategies for closing the gap of racial and ethnic health disparities.
One of the top priorities of President Obama’s Health Information Technology for Economic and Clinical Health (HITECH) Act of 2009 is to reduce health disparities—such as disproportionately high rates of chronic diseases in racial and ethnic minority populations—through the “meaningful use” of EHR technology. Seven years after the passage of HITECH, how much progress have we made toward achieving that goal?
In the 2013 report Understanding the Impact of Health IT in Underserved Communities and Those with Health Disparities, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services’ Office of the National Coordinator for Health Information Technology (ONC) showcases many innovative examples of how health care providers nationwide are using EHRs, as well as other types of health IT, to increase access to care and improve health outcomes in communities of color. From the rural Mississippi Delta to immigrant and low-income communities in large metropolitan areas, “health IT offers promising tools to address chronic diseases by facilitating the continuity of care and long-term follow-up needed for successful management of these conditions,” the report concludes.
That, of course, is where nurses come in. Take a close look at successful model programs that are deploying health IT to help close the gap of unequal health outcomes and you’ll see nurses—including hospital and clinic RNs, nurse practitioners, informatics nurses, case management nurses, nurse researchers, and more—playing leadership roles.
“Nurses are coordinators of care for patients. We’re typically the first person they see when they seek health care,” says Joyce Sensmeier, MS, RN-BC, CPHIMS, FAAN, vice president of informatics at HIMSS. “It’s really a natural extension of the nurse’s role with patients to connect the dots from the information technology side.”
For most nurses, health IT begins with the EHR. This essential platform enables them to instantly access a patient’s complete health record, document patient data in real time, monitor changes in the patient’s condition, and use clinical decision support tools—such as computerized alerts—to respond to those changes. But increasingly, nurses are also waging war against health inequities by arming themselves with an arsenal of other high-tech tools, including the following:
• patient portal websites, which give patients convenient access to their personal health information and enhance communication between clinicians and patients;
• health information exchanges, which allow patient data to be securely shared between different providers—such as hospitals, ERs, and primary care providers—to improve continuity of care;
• wireless and mobile health (mHealth) technologies, such as smartphone apps and text messaging;
• external databases, such as state and national disease registries and immunization registries, that collect clinical information about specialized populations of patients across a large geographic area; and
• population management software (PMS) systems, which help nurses track health trends among specific groups of patients they care for—for example, pediatric patients, or patients with diabetes.
Seeing the Bigger Picture
For nurses who are working to improve minority health outcomes, one of the biggest advantages of using health IT is that these tools make it easier than ever before to capture, compare, and analyze patient data. And that translates into unprecedented opportunities for leveraging that data to better manage the needs of patients with chronic illnesses, identify gaps in care, and develop targeted interventions.
“Clinicians have always been information workers,” says David Hunt, MD, FACS, medical director of patient safety and health IT adoption at the ONC. “It’s just that so often we’re focused on that one patient, that one chart. IT tools give you the ability to step back and look across groups of patients to really get insight into how to make care better.”
In other words, these technologies maximize nurses’ ability to address health disparities from a population health perspective. You can “slice and dice” the data stored in the EHR to classify and group patients in many different ways—for example, by race, ethnicity, age, and gender. Nurses can also zero in on patients who have particular conditions—such as heart failure, asthma, or HIV—to generate condition-specific reports and action plans, says Wanda Govan-Jenkins, DNP, MS, MBA, RN, lead nurse informaticist for the ONC.
“You can look at the EHR and extract these groups of patients to see which patients’ blood pressure was elevated at their last visit, or which patient hasn’t been seen for a while,” she explains.
Patient portals are another vehicle for communicating chronic disease management reminders to whole populations of patients, adds Lisa Oldham, PhD, RN, NE-BC, FABC, vice president of practice operations and chief nursing officer at the Institute for Family Health, which provides care to medically underserved communities at multiple facilities in New York City and state. The institute’s portal, MyChart MyHealth, is available in both English and Spanish (MiRecord MiSalud).
“We can create an electronic letter for the entire organization’s patients who fall into a specific category and send it to them through the portal,” Oldham says. “The patient will get an e-mail that says, ‘Please go into your MyChart,’ and that’s where they’ll see the letter. For instance, we just sent out an e-mail blast to all our geriatric patients reminding them to come in for their annual wellness visit.”
At the Cherokee Indian Hospital (CIH) in North Carolina, a tribal health system that serves more than 14,000 members of the Eastern Band of the Cherokee Indians, care management nurses develop outreach campaigns using the hospital’s PMS, which works in conjunction with the EHR.
“By pulling data out of these platforms, our nurses can target in and pinpoint things like how many people need to get a colorectal cancer screening or a Pap test,” says Sonya Wachacha, MHS, RN, CCM, executive director of nursing at CIH. “Then the nurse generates a reminder letter to that person, such as ‘Mrs. Smith, it looks like you’re due for your mammogram. Can you please come in and get that done?’”
On an even larger scale, says Hunt, “disease registries are wonderful resources, because you can identify characteristics and trends that you don’t have insight into when you’re just looking at a group of patients within your own practice. Having the benefit of looking at large amounts of data from many, many providers gives you tremendous insight in terms of being able to infer more information about your patient population.”
Educate, Engage, Empower
Nurses are also finding that consumer-driven health IT tools, like patient portals and mHealth technology, can offer exciting new ways to help patients who are living with chronic diseases become better educated about their conditions, more engaged with their treatment, and more empowered to self-manage their own health.
Patients can log into their care provider’s portal and access disease management educational materials, which health systems can tailor to meet the needs of limited-English-speaking and low-literacy patients. For example, the Institute for Family Health’s portal has links to patient education resources in more than 40 languages.
At the Institute’s Ellenville Family Health Center in Ellenville, New York, a rural community with one of the highest poverty levels in the state, “the most prevalent disease processes in our patient population are diabetes and cardiovascular problems,” says staff nurse Santiago Diaz, RN. “The portal has information specifically for these patients. We walk them through the basics of where to find the information, and we show them the shortcuts so that they don’t get lost in all the information that’s up there.”
Because nearly everybody today seems to have a smartphone or cellphone, these devices can help nurses connect with hard-to-reach populations, such as young people. Jo-Ann Eastwood, PhD, RN, CCNS, CCRN, associate professor and advanced practice program director at UCLA School of Nursing, recently conducted a research study that used custom-designed smartphone apps to teach young African American women who were at high risk for heart disease how to make heart-healthy lifestyle changes.
“When we look at chronic disease prevention in minority populations,” she says, “we have to look at the population that’s between 25 and 45 years old, or even younger. If we’re going to develop prevention strategies that are relevant to this population that is very technologically astute, that is fast-moving, that is busy, we have to hit them where it’s salient.”
Govan-Jenkins, who is also a professor of informatics in the graduate program at Walden University School of Nursing, recommends teaching patients how to download and use the many free or low-cost mobile apps that are available in the consumer health marketplace. For instance, there are diabetes management apps that let patients monitor their blood glucose levels and upload that data to their patient portal for nurses to track.
“Patients who have smartphones or mobile devices can download continuous self-monitoring apps that let them see things like how many steps they took that day and how many calories they burned,” Govan-Jenkins continues. “The nurse can also send weekly or monthly text messages to condition-specific groups of patients, such as reminding them to take their medication.”
Ultimately, Wachacha believes, being able to interact with their own health data and personally follow their progress toward meeting their health improvement goals can make a big difference in engaging patients to take a more active part in their care.
“With our EHR, we can create graphs that let patients see how their blood sugar or blood pressure readings are going up or down over time,” she says. “When our tribal members who have diabetes, for example, can look at that graph and see that their A1C levels are going down after they start exercising, it’s meaningful for them. It gets them motivated to do more with their care, because they can see that the things they’ve done are having an impact on their results.”
Reaching Across Barriers
According to the ONC report, health care providers must find solutions for overcoming “challenges and barriers to the use of health IT” in medically underserved communities of color. Some of those challenges include limited access to Internet service and cellphone connectivity in underdeveloped rural areas, cultural and linguistic differences, and low rates of technology literacy among these patients.
Telehealth remote monitoring systems (software-based IT tools that let nurses collect data via a device they install in the patient’s home) are an effective strategy for reaching patients in rural communities who don’t have access to computers, says LaVerne Perlie, MSN, RN, senior nurse consultant at the ONC.
At the initial home visit, telehealth nurses show patients how to record their health information, such as blood pressure readings, and enter those numbers into the system. “That data is sent directly to the nurse in the provider’s office so that he or she knows when to come out and visit the patient and make recommendations for ongoing care, such as scheduling an office visit or even a hospital admission,” Perlie explains.
As members of the nation’s most trusted profession, nurses are ideally suited to educate patients who are unfamiliar or uncomfortable with technology about how to use health IT tools and become more computer-literate.
At Institute for Family Health facilities, patients receive information about MyChart MyHealth as soon as they walk in the door. In the examination room, says Oldham, nurses explain how the portal works and the benefits of using it. They answer any questions the patient has. Then they help patients register for the portal right there, guiding them through the process of how to log in, create a correctly formatted password, and navigate the website. For patients who don’t have a computer at home, “we encourage them to use the computers at the public library [or to download the MyChart MyHealth mobile app to their smartphone if they have one],” adds Diaz.
Still, another challenge cited in the Understanding the Impact of Health IT report is that “customization of off-the-shelf health IT products often necessary to ensure that they [meet] the needs of underserved populations.” For example, the Cherokee Indian Hospital serves a patient population that has a high risk for suicide, substance abuse, and tobacco use. Because its EHR and PMS didn’t include functions for monitoring these risks, the hospital had to add them.
Hunt and Perlie emphasize that the best way hospitals can make sure their investment in technology will provide information that’s the right fit for their population health management needs is to get nurses involved in the design of health IT systems right from the start—before the technology is implemented. Many health IT projects fail, Govan-Jenkins cautions, because the implementation team didn’t seek input from frontline nursing staff. “And then they had to rebuild and re-implement the system, because it was just not capturing the data they needed to capture for their specific type of patients.”
That, says Sensmeier, is what reducing health disparities through the meaningful use of health IT is really all about. “It’s not just about adopting the technology. It’s about using it in such a way that we can capture the data that’s been entered and learn from it—learn what makes an impact in different patient populations, what care models and treatments work, what outcomes are being realized, and how we can change our practice.”