How to Combat Racism in Nursing

Racial issues are prevalent in many professions, and healthcare is no exception. Whether nurses are personally experiencing racism or witnessing its effects on colleagues and patients, they must be proactive in their response. Effective tactics may be acquired on the job, while others are learned during a Registered Nurse to Bachelor of Science in Nursing (RN to BSN) program, where coursework addresses prominent ethical-legal issues. Below is a look at how racism presents in nursing and how to combat it.

How Does Racism Affect Healthcare?

Merriam-Webster defines “racism” as “a belief that race is the primary determinant of human traits and capacities and that racial differences produce an inherent superiority of a particular race.”

Whether experiencing actual or perceived racism – the latter where a person feels discriminated against even in its absence – both have significant impacts on physical and psychological well-being. These individuals often have measurably higher stress levels. They are at increased risk of hypertension, heart disease and mental health conditions, such as major depression.

Patients may sense they are not receiving optimal care because of their race. If this leads to delayed treatment, they are less likely to adhere to recommended treatment plans, resulting in diminished health outcomes. Minorities experience more significant health disparities in general, once thought to stem mainly from differences in socioeconomic status but now increasingly attributed to race.

Racism directed at nurses and healthcare workers, either instigated by patients or other colleagues, is an ongoing issue and can lead to similarly damaging psychological fallout, including anxiety, depression and burnout. A 2019 study by Nursing Times found that 63% of respondents had observed racial discrimination or disadvantage that affected someone other than themselves in the past year. Forty percent of those incidents involved racist behavior by patients and their families. For example, patients may demand care only from nurses and providers of certain ethnicities. Nurses who experience such racism in the workplace feel unsupported and struggle to find satisfactory resolutions.

What Can Nurses Do to Address Racism?

The American Nurses Association (ANA) advocates for inclusive policies in all areas of nursing practice, education and research, recommending that nurses, staff and patients be treated equally and given access to the same quality of care and opportunities. While this is a substantial undertaking, there are small steps that nurses can take each day to begin addressing discriminatory behaviors:

Acknowledge the inequities. Even if you do not personally encounter racism, simply acknowledging that others have different experiences can be a step in the right direction. This shift in mindset helps you see discriminatory practices that previously went unchecked.

Evaluate your own thoughts and feelings. Racism is frequently subtle – an under-the-breath remark, a pointed glance or a change in body language – these patterns exist from a young age. With more experience, you may realize previous modes of behavior were inappropriate. Take inventory of your personal beliefs and make sure those align with the professional nursing values you vowed to uphold.

Support systemic change. Many employers and organizations are taking steps to combat racism and ensure inclusivity for all. Show your support for these initiatives by joining committees, sharing your feedback with leadership and encouraging your colleagues’ diversity.

Take a patient-centered approach. Nurses should adopt a patient-centered approach to care that respects patients’ unique needs and their individual religious, spiritual and cultural preferences.

As racial inequities gain exposure, they serve as a stark reminder that there is no place for discrimination in healthcare. Nurses of all races and ethnicities are instrumental in ensuring a judgment-free workplace and providing optimal care, regardless of the patient’s skin color or socioeconomic background. Although nursing has made strides in combating racism, it is crucial for healthcare professionals to remain committed to eliminating it once and for all.

Learn more about the University of South Carolina Aiken online RN to BSN program.


American Journal of Nursing: The Cure for the Racist Patient?

American Nurses Association: The Nurse’s Role in Addressing Discrimination: Protecting and Promoting Inclusive Strategies in Practice Settings, Policy, and Advocacy

BMC Psychology: The Effects of Perceived Racism on Psychological Distress Mediated by Venting and Disengagement Coping in Native Hawaiians

Merriam-Webster: Racism Nursing Organizations Step up to Address Racism and Its Consequences

Nursing Times: Exclusive — High Level of Racial Discrimination Faced by Nurses Revealed

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