Education grants aim to bolster health-care ranks

By Darryl Fears
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, July 13, 2010

It is a sign of the economic times: Nursing students at Howard University work part-time jobs and still cannot keep up with tuition. "We have experienced good students having to withdraw from the program because of lack of resources. When parents lose jobs, students can't continue," said Mary Hill, associate dean in the school's division of nursing.

At the start of the month, the game changed. Howard received $1.5 million from the Obama administration to train student nurses and others in sciences such as radiology and occupational therapy. The award was a fraction of $96 million in grants doled out by the Department of Health and Human Services on July 1 to hundreds of health-profession programs at colleges and universities nationwide.

The money is especially intended to increase the racial diversity of the health-care workforce by keeping minority students in health classes, HHS Secretary Kathleen Sebelius said in a statement. Reports have estimated that the average nursing student leaves school with nearly $50,000 in loan debt.

"The health professions workforce in the United States does not reflect the population it serves," Sebelius said. "These funds will help support the education of disadvantaged students who are more likely to go on to serve in underserved areas."

A 2008 report by the Council on Physician and Nurse Supply said schools would have to produce 30,000 nurses annually to offset a shortage as well as a looming mass retirement of nurses, 45 percent of whom are 50 or older. A 2007 report by the American Hospital Association said 116,000 nurses were needed to fill registered-nurse vacancies in hospitals.

Minority representation in the health professions has grown at a snail's pace since 1980. Among registered nurses, for example, the percentage of African Americans and Hispanics falls far short of their percentage of the population, according to the 2008 National Sample of Registered Nurses.

African Americans represent 5 percent of registered nurses and 12 percent of the population. Hispanics represent about 4 percent of registered nurses and 15 percent of the population. Asian Americans fall short, too, with 3 percent of registered nurses and nearly 6 percent of the population. The sample said that the 83 percent of nurses who are white far exceeds their population representation -- 66 percent.

The grants are needed "because health care does not have large numbers of underrepresented students," Hill said. That is a problem because members of minorities have said in surveys that they are more comfortable with health professionals who are familiar with their culture, and the more comfortable they are, the more they return for treatment before their conditions worsen.

"There are too few white nurses who understand these cultures," said Betty Smith Williams, president emeritus of the National Coalition of Ethnic Minority Nurse Associations. Williams said she was the first black nurse to teach at a major California university, and subsequently became an assistant dean of nursing at the University of California at Los Angeles and the University of Colorado at Boulder.

"Traditional universities don't have the role models and the sensitivities to recruit and train minority students. They always come to us, and we have to help fill the void," Williams said. "We recruit through networking, camaraderie and relationships developed at our conventions."

Howard and two other historically black schools, the Morehouse School of Medicine in Atlanta and the Meharry Medical College in Nashville, were recently cited in a study as the universities that produce the largest percentage of primary-care physicians who practice in areas where health workers are scarce.

Howard has 1,100 students enrolled in the College of Pharmacology, Nursing and Allied Health Sciences, and keeping them there during the economic slump is an uncertainty. When Hill learned that HHS was offering grants, she grabbed an application and submitted it on the June 1 deadline. "This is the largest grant for scholarships that the college has received," she said.

Still, said Norma Martinez Rogers, president of the National Association of Hispanic Nurses, it is not enough. "Ninety-six million sounds like a lot, but in reality it's not a lot," she said. "I think it's a step in the right direction. But I think we need more mentors, more programs, more funding.

"There's such a shortage of Hispanic nurses that they're bringing Filipino nurses to places like South Texas. But Filipinos don't know our culture. . . . We must encourage our people to go to school and become nurses."

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