Bennett: Why black males should enter nursing

Ed Bennett, Columnist

The nursing field is expanding at an exponential rate. Along with the entire healthcare industry, there is increasingly more room in the healthcare profession. The retirement of the baby boomer generation and the increase in the older adult population has also created a shortage of nurses and other qualified healthcare professionals.

In a recent study by the American Association of the College of Nursing, African-Americans only made up six percent of the nursing workforce, and the figure is even less when looking at black males. The amount of white registered nurses is around 83 percent, significantly higher than that of minority groups. There is a clear disparity in the amount of nurses that come from the black community.

As you may or may not know, I am a nursing student here at Case Western Reserve University. I am the only black male in my entire class and there are less than five in the entire Bachelor of Science in Nursing program. Looking back at my first clinical rotation, I remember being smiled at and congratulated as I walked through the halls of University Hospitals. Other black nurses smiled at me and thanked me for taking this step. I finally got to my first patient, who happened to be a black woman. She pulled me close to her and told me that I made her happy, and that I have given other black males a chance to pick a different route. Before that encounter, I had never really thought about the impact my decision to become a nurse would have on the world.

As more black males enter the nursing field, there is an increased chance that the dissemination of healthcare information will take place. During clinical rotations, I often encounter many of the chronic diseases that plague the black community; oftentimes there are stigmas in the black community about going to the doctor for check-ups, especially among males. This is due in part to the mistrust of the medical field after incidents such as the Tuskegee Syphilis Experiment, in which the U.S. Public Health Service studied the natural progression of untreated syphilis in African-American men in Alabama by falsely assuring them free health care, and the Henrietta Lacks story, where Lacks became the unwitting donor of cells from her cancerous tumor at John Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore. But it could also be because when my family goes to the hospital, they do not see a single face that looks like mine. Increasing the amount of black males in the healthcare profession will not only help spread information about chronic diseases, but in the event that someone who is a minority comes to the hospital, they can be taken care of by someone who knows their culture and the plight of black people in medicine in this country.

However gender stereotypes present a barrier to increasing the entrance of black males, as we have to fight the notion that nursing is only for women. In order to change that notion, the culture of the profession needs to change. Women and men already in the profession need to analyze the dynamics of their work environment, allowing them to acknowledge the discrepancies in representation between men and women, especially black men. Until that initiative is shown, there can be no progress.

Personally, I know that a lot of black men who are interested in the healthcare industry only see two sides of it. They are either shown the route to becoming a medical doctor, or they are steered into the business end of the industry. There is oftentimes not enough exposure to the nursing profession as a successful career. It wasn’t until I entered college that I realized pre-medical wasn’t the route I wanted to take, and nursing was my calling all along. It has become evident that I was extremely lucky. A lot of black men who were in the same situation either gave up on being in the healthcare industry or entered into a profession they didn’t really have a passion for.

Exposure is the way to increasing the amount of black males represented in the nursing profession. Once a student understands what they can do with a nursing degree, there will be more interest. Opportunities range from earning their license as a Nurse Practitioner or going on to earn their Doctorate in Nursing Practice to being a healthcare leader and teacher in the community they serve. Students who are not exposed to these options may be missing out on an opportunity to make a huge impact.

Institutions need to focus on community outreach and putting funding and resources behind educating black males about opportunities in nursing. Without the backing of prominent pillars in the healthcare industry, along with the institutions that educate future nurses, the outreach campaign does not seem viable on its own.

I am proud to consider myself a future nurse who will break down barriers and create opportunities for other black males along the way. The profession and our communities need us, and we need to continue to recruit, educate and produce the best healthcare force the world has ever known.

Ed is a third-year Nursing Student.