It is no secret Black men have the lowest life expectancy compared to any demographic group in the nation. They also have low numbers of representation in nursing. Of a total of 4.2 million registered nurses in the U.S.A. Black nurses make up only 6% and men account for only 9.4% of nurses nationwide. Black men, however, make up such a small number that there’s no way to count it.
These two facts are not unrelated. More Black men in nursing can help improve Black men’s health status – and keep Black men alive.
While it’s true that violence takes the lives of young Black men, lack of health insurance, lower socioeconomic status, structural racism and the underutilization of preventative healthcare services compromises the health status of the population of Black men, writ large.
Black men’s avoidance of the medical system stems from distrust, a feeling of danger posed by unethical governmental actions against Blacks in the U.S. Black men score higher than other groups on medical mistrust measures.
The Tuskegee Syphilis Study, which began in 1932, is undoubtedly one of the most known governmental healthcare injustices done towards Black men where approximately 400 Black men were observed for the progression of Syphilis, while withholding existing remedies that had already been proven to cure the disease. This study that continued for 40+ years resulted in the unnecessary death of many Black men, an unknown medical risk for the community these men lived, and a distrust in healthcare Blacks hold strong today.
That’s history, but revelations of unethical treatment continue to this day. Late last year, the University of California San Francisco (UCSF) apologized for the work of two dermatologists who put pesticides and herbicides on the skin and injected into the veins of at least 2600 incarcerated men in the 1960’s and 1970’s. This happened at the California Medical Facility, the first prison hospital in the country. It was a progressive idea back in 1955 to medicalize lawbreaking by attempting to treat serious mental illness.
But even that step forward was taken out of ulterior motives; placement in the California Medical Facility was just a way to prime an inmate to serve as a canvas for doctors’ scientific inquiry. The exact racial composition of California prisons in the 1970’s isn’t known, but as of the early 1970’s, the nationwide trend of drug arrests ensnared more Black men in the criminal legal system than other groups. It stands to reason that Black men served as experimental sites for UCSF’s dermatology testing.
This distrust pays dividends to Black men that don’t help them. More recent studies have shown how Black patients were three times more likely to die from COVID-19, many of them because of vaccine misgivings.
Many healthcare institutions are actively implementing diversity, equity and inclusion initiatives to dismantle the system racism and injustices done to Black patients, including implicit bias training for healthcare workers, but there are many years we may face before there are any significant changes.
Diversifying the healthcare profession by increasing the number of underrepresented minorities is a goal set by many national organizations, including the Institute of Medicine (IOM), National Medical Association (NMA), the Association of American Medical Colleges (AAMC), and the American Medical Association (AMA).
Gender or race-match between the healthcare provider and the patient increases demand for preventive care. Greater utilization of preventive services reduces mortality, which necessarily entails that gender- or race-matching providers and patients leads to lower mortality. Simply put, Black men in nursing is the antidote for improving Black men’s health.
Increasing Black men into the nursing field can lead to trusting interactions with Black male patients leading to the potential increasing health screenings. Increased screening could lead to a 19% reduction in the black-white male cardiovascular mortality gap and an 8% decline in the black-white male life expectancy gap.
Given the very small statistics of Black men in nursing and Black nurses in general, accounting for only 6% of all nurses, there are many patients who may have an inpatient stay in the hospital and not come into contact with someone from their race they trust. This unfortunate reality leads to the risk of readmission due to their noncompliance of health practices recommended by health professionals they do not trust.
Recruiting a more diverse workforce needs to be a goal for all healthcare systems. I knew as a child my aspiration to enter the profession of nursing to help others in need, especially those in the Black community, like my family, suffering and even dying from illnesses that are treatable.
There is something special about a Black patient seeing someone they identify with as their healthcare worker. The lives I have been able to touch, comfort and save have let me know I am in the right place. Not only would recruiting Black men into nursing improve Black patients’ health outcomes, it would improve the overall value of healthcare systems by allowing new ideas, outlooks and skills.
Increasing the number of Black men in nursing could improve the health outcomes for Black patients, create role models for Black male youth, and secure a role in a profession where opportunities expand exponentially.