Racism remains a common problem in the healthcare industry. Patients and providers alike can be judged by the color of their skin. But a new survey of 900 nurses, including registered nurses, nurse practitioners, and licensed vocational nurses, from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation shows that many nurses see this behavior in their colleagues as well. Some 80 percent of respondents said they have seen or experienced racism from patients, 60 percent said from colleagues, and less than 25 percent said they reported the incident.
Jose M. Maria, a family NP in New York City, said he has been called just about every hateful slur in the book and often gets mistaken for a janitor because of the color of his skin. “I’ve felt I’ve had a target on my back,” he told STAT News. “People don’t do anything because no one is going to do a damned thing. It’s an extension of society — plain and simple.”
This isn’t the first survey to highlight the problem of racism in nursing. A recent survey of 7,600 nurses from the American Nurses Association shows that nearly half of all nurses believe there is “a lot” of racism in nursing. Fifty-six percent of respondents also said that racism in the workplace has negatively impacted their profession.
The data also shows that nurses who work in nursing homes, home healthcare, and hospital settings are more likely to face discrimination than those working in doctor’s offices. Of all respondents, black nurses reported seeing the highest number of these incidents. Eighty-eight percent of black participants reported seeing or experiencing racism from patients and 72 percent from colleagues. Similarly, 86 percent of Asian American nurses witnessed this behavior in patients and 65 percent from colleagues.
Statistics show that 81 percent of all registered nurses are white, a figure that has held steady for years even though many nursing schools and organizations have taken steps to increase diversity. Several leading nursing groups came together in 2021 to create the National Commission to Address Racism in Nursing, a diverse group of providers looking to help the nursing field confront and end systemic racism in its ranks.
Many nurses who participated in the research placed the blame on superficial diversity initiatives within their organization, which they say are insufficient to bring about meaningful change.
For example, California now requires all nursing graduates to complete implicit bias training. The mandate was seen as a step in the right direction to some, but others saw it as superficial. “It required an hour of training,” said Claire Valderama-Wallace, a Filipino nurse and associate professor of nursing at California State University, East Bay. “One hour.”
Leaders in the profession say it all starts with changing the way the industry recruits and trains nurses and by addressing the root causes of racism.
“We can’t address racism just by adjusting our curricula,” Valderama-Wallace added. “If it’s not critiquing and acting to change the pillars of power, it’s not going far enough.”
But bringing about change from the top-down isn’t easy. Cheryl Peterson, the American Nurses Association’s vice president for nursing programs, said the organization has heard the criticism and is trying to do a better job of ending racism in the profession. Part of this work involves making amends with the past. The ANA “purposefully, systemically and systematically excluded black nurses,” the organization wrote, because membership came through state- and district-based associations, some of which barred black nurses from getting licenses.
“We ourselves acknowledge that we have been part of the problem and now want to be part of the solution,” Peterson told STAT News. She said the group isn’t moving fast enough for some members, but that it is moving too fast to support the changes that need to be made.
“We have a sense of urgency. We want to work fast but be intentional, so we don’t cause more harm with a misstep,” Peterson said.