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The subject of minorities and health care frequently focuses on the disparities in access and illnesses and diseases prevalent among minority populations. But what about minorities and healthcare jobs and careers?

According to experts, there’s a lack of diversity in the health care workforce. In 2003, a national commission was assembled to study the problem and in 2004 released “Missing Persons: Minorities in the Health Professions.”

The 208-page report by the Sullivan Commission on Diversity in the Health Care Workforce found widespread disparities.

“While African Americans, Hispanic Americans, and American Indians, as a group, constitute nearly 25 percent of the U.S. population, these three groups account for less than nine percent of nurses, six percent of physicians, and only five percent of dentists,” the report states.

A study by the Institute of Medicine recommends increasing the number of minority health professionals as a key strategy to eliminate health disparities. Similar disparities show up in the faculties of health professional schools. For example, minorities make up less than 10 percent of baccalaureate nursing faculties, 8.6 percent of dental school faculties, and only 4.2 percent of medical school faculties.

The commission determined three “essentials” to fulfill a vision of greater diversity:

• Culture of health profession schools must change
• New and nontraditional paths to health professions should be explored
• Commitments must be at the highest level.
The commission made 37 recommendations, including:
• Health systems should set measurable goals for having multilingual staffs and should provide incentives for improving the language skills of all health care providers.
• Health professions schools, hospitals, and other organizations should partner with businesses, communities and public school systems to provide students with classrooms and other learning opportunities for academic enrichment in the sciences.
• Dental and medical schools should reduce their dependence on standardized tests in the admission process.
• Health professions schools should provide opportunities and innovate programs for under-represented minorities who decide to pursue a health profession as a second career.
• Congress should substantially increase funding to support diversity programs within the National Health Service Corps.

Louis W. Sullivan, M.D., chair of the commission, called on leaders in the public and private sector and stakeholders in health and education to solve the crisis by utilizing a strategy of inclusion in crafting solutions.

“It is time to correct the imbalance in our health professions,” stated Sullivan in the report. “If we fail to do so, we risk catastrophe in view of the rapid demographic changes occurring in our society. We must work hard and we must dream again!”

Trummell Valdera, a human resources consultant, cited a U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics report that projected where jobs would be in the next decade and found health care as the No. 1 industry.

“From certified nursing assistants to your aides and assistants all the way to your various physicians, professionals, health educators, etc.,” said Valdera, “it is and it will continue to be a growing area and there are many opportunities where people have transitioned from one career into a health care with additional training or apprenticeship or just the opportunity that those places have given.”

Marleece Barber, director of health and wellness and chief medical officer with Lockheed Martin Corp., said there healthcare staffing shortages exist in the United States, particularly in minority communities which continue to be underserved.

She also said there’s a proliferation of health promotion roles involving “getting out in a community and talking about issues they [the community] might not understand.” Nurse educators who are able to spend more time with patients than doctors generally spend is another growing field. Barber said she also sees opportunities “helping people better navigate the health care system.

“There are going to be a lot of people coming in [for medical care] who haven’t seen the doctor before, don’t know what to do, don’t understand insurance,” she said.

“So those are probably things ripe for exploring.”

Opportunities for entrepreneurs and innovative thinkers

“I know the wellness industry is really exploding,” said Barber. “It’s a very competitive field. There will continue to be opportunities for innovative people interested in finding a better way to engage people to better health.”

T. Patrice Waters, senior operations manager and military health program manager at Lockheed Martin Corp., said working as a consultant and in information technology are emerging health care arenas.

Waters listed a number of organizations that could be beneficial to individuals who want to pursue a health care career. Among those on her list:

• American College of Health Care Executives
• National Center for Human Factors in Health Care
• Center for Health Care Information and Research
• Institute for Health Care Improvement
• American Society of Health Care Engineers
Other growing areas cited involve data analytics, DNA and genome research as well as engineering.

“If you look ahead and understand there will be more people accessing the health care system I am thinking that there are probably some opportunities focused on improving the patient experience,” said Barber. “I was thinking the other day if I had to start over and go into business for myself, where are the gaps?”

Barber gave an example of a job related to improving the patient experience that she thought of after a recent visit to her primary care physician. She suggests an employee who could be a doctor’s “sidekick.”

The individual would make follow-up phone calls to patients to inquire about how they are doing, ask if they understood what the doctor explained and find out if they are taking medicines and following doctor’s instructions.

“I don’t know if anybody is doing that,” said Barber “Maybe I should go do that.”

Expert Advice for Living Longer

Interested in maximizing your longevity? One health expert suggested that having a health plan similar to financial and career plans is one way to go about it.

Marleece Barber, director of health and wellness and chief medical officer with Lockheed Martin Corp., recommends that individuals develop personal health plans that spell out strategies and goals.

“I think it’s important to make sure you have a plan for your health, and that it’s regularly refreshed,” said Barber. “I frequently find that people don’t look at their health and what’s going on in their health life by decades,” she said. “So what kinds of things should you be doing by certain ages to preserve function.”

A health plan should include a checklist of such items as questions to ask health care providers during office visits, physical activity goals and more. She gave examples such as listing running a marathon at age 50 or hiking at age 60.

“Make sure you have a plan for your health, that it’s regularly refreshed and that it takes into account that you are going to get to 90,” Barber said.

Barber, who shared that her father died at 54 of a heart attack and that cardiovascular disease has been associated with the deaths of 12 of her aunts and uncles, also cited the importance of making wise choices every day.

“I love gumbo and I would eat fried catfish every day if I could, but I have horrible, horrible, horrible genes,” said Barber. “Maybe it’s because we are so indulgent in the pleasure of food and busy living our lives and not getting that activity in. There isn’t that connection between the little things we do every day and what the impact is on our blood vessels and how it’s impacting our organs and that it’s cutting our lifespan.

“You have to be very deliberate about your choices and how you live your life if you are going to make it to 100 and you have horrible genes.”

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