Sept. 15 to Oct. 15 is National Hispanic Heritage Month when we recognize the contributions made and the important presence of Hispanic / Latino Americans in the United States. According to the Office of Minority Health, Hispanics/Latinos are currently the largest minority group, with 53 million, or nearly 17 percent of the nation’s total population.

Between the years 2000 – 2006, the Hispanic growth rate was more than three times the growth rate for the total population (24.3 percent versus 6.1 percent, respectively), projecting those of Hispanic origin to reach 30 percent (of the nation’s total population) by 2050.  While Connecticut is not considered one of the top ten states with large Hispanic numbers, it does rank number 17 in the United States (494,000 Hispanic population),  with roughly 14 percent of the Connecticut population claiming Hispanic heritage.

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The health disparities that affect Hispanic/Latino communities have become an extensive and complex problem for our healthcare system. As a group, they have the largest number of uninsured and are often dealing with various language, cultural and access to care issues.

While the Institute of Medicine notes that the root causes of health disparities are multifactorial, the under-representation of minority nurses in healthcare is considered a significant part of the problem. One of the ways targeted to alleviate some of the burden and to improve their health outcomes is to increase the number of Hispanic nurses.

Nurses spend more time than any other health care professional assessing and managing patients. Research has consistently demonstrated that racial and ethnic minority health professionals are more likely to provide culturally competent care to racial/ethnic minorities.

Unfortunately, the racial /ethnic distribution of the registered nurse population does not reflect that of the U.S. population as a whole. A survey conducted by the United States Department of Health and Human Services estimated that there are roughly 3 million RNs living in the United States.

The majority of these nurses are white (75.4 percent), while non-Hispanic white persons have reached an all-time low of 63 percent of the total U.S. population. In contrast, Hispanic nurses account for roughly 5 percent of the total RN population, yet Hispanics comprise nearly 17 percent of the total U.S. population.

New England, in particular, has the second lowest percentage of employed RNs from racial/ethnic minority groups. In order to meet the current and future Hispanic/Latino healthcare needs of individuals, families and communities, the under representation of Hispanic nurses is a significant issue that needs to be addressed.

In the report, Missing Persons: Minorities in the Health Professions, the need for leadership, commitment, and accountability at the highest levels in institutions of learning was underscored as a way to address the serious problem of a lack of diversity in the health professions.

They appropriately challenged the various health professions to undergo deep introspection and emphasized the need for a transformation at our institutes of higher education and in our healthcare system, in order to meet the needs of the changing population in this country.

Increasing the numbers of Hispanic/Latino nurses will not only benefit the health of Hispanics, but the health of our nation as well, by improving the health outcomes of the largest minority group and therefore reducing healthcare costs.

If as a country we continue to become more diverse, we need to see the same strides being made in our health professions. With nurses being the largest providers of healthcare in the U.S., it is imperative that nursing mirror the U.S. population in order to provide the best possible care to our culturally diverse nation.

Jessica Alicea-Planas Ph.D., R.N., is an assistant professor at the Fairfield University School of Nursing.

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