The population of the United States encompasses a diversity of cultures, religions, racial backgrounds and personal beliefs that build the country’s communities. As nurses, recognizing and valuing how our patients differ from one another is an important part of demonstrating caring in our profession.

Although national health has seen improvements overall, the National Prevention Information Network (NPIN) of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) points out that “disparities continue in the incidence of illness and death among African Americans, Latino/Hispanic Americans, Native Americans, Asian Americans, Alaska Natives, and Pacific Islanders, as compared with the US population as a whole.”

The goal of most RN to BSN programs is to train nurses to better anticipate and understand patients’ cultural, religious, racial and community differences in order to deliver quality care.

What Is Diversity in Nursing?

The patient populations nurses serve are different from one another in many of the same ways that members of the same nursing team are different from one another. Therefore, diversity in nursing refers to the differences that exist between patients as well as nurses and other members of the healthcare team. In a DiversityNursing blog post, Erica Bettencourt (2016) lists a number of characteristics or identifiers:

  • Age
  • Physical traits
  • Race
  • Religion
  • Ethnic background
  • Gender
  • Sexual orientation
  • Disability
  • Educational status
  • Veteran status
  • Socioeconomic status
  • National origin

Other diversity considerations include marital status, beliefs about cohabitation, the concept of family and beliefs about health, sickness and food. Bettencourt suggests that “communication with patients can be improved and patient care enhanced when healthcare providers bridge the divide between the culture of medicine and the beliefs and practices that make up a patient’s value system.”

Problems When Diverse Patient Populations Do Not Feel Understood

The U.S. healthcare system has a unique subculture of its own that can be challenging, confusing and intimidating for patients to navigate. They may hesitate to seek care when they need it or fear that their care providers will not accept or understand them. Patients may even fear that healthcare professionals will discriminate against them because of their differences.

When patients feel uncomfortable, their health is at risk and communication with nurses and the healthcare team is likely to be poorer. For example, research by the CDC (2017) shows that blacks and other minority groups have more illness, worse health outcomes and higher premature death rates than whites — largely because of this lack of communication and understanding.

Diversity in Nursing and Cultural Competence

Maintaining diversity in nursing requires that healthcare professionals provide culturally competent care. The NPIN defines culture as “integrated patterns of human behavior that include the language, thoughts, communications, actions, customs, beliefs, values, and institutions of racial, ethnic, religious, or social groups.” Competence means having the “capacity to function effectively as an individual and an organization within the context of the cultural beliefs, behaviors, and needs presented by consumers and their communities.”

How a Diverse Nursing Population Helps a Diverse Patient Population

When diversity is valued and integrated into a nursing team, patients recognize this and are more comfortable when seeking healthcare. A diverse nursing team is also valuable because more nurses can potentially relate to the needs and preferences of patients.

For example, a black woman admitted to a labor and delivery ward is likely to feel more welcome when she sees other black nurses on staff as opposed to an all-white nursing staff. A diverse nursing team that can share patients’ beliefs and values can also help other staff understand the concerns or preferences of patients in a way a more homogeneous nursing staff might not.

Benefits of Having a More Diverse Nursing Staff

Both patients and nurses benefit when a healthcare team values and incorporates greater diversity. Some of the advantages of a diverse nursing staff include:

  • Better patient outcomes
  • Increased patient satisfaction
  • Fewer language barriers
  • Increased understanding and respect for other cultures
  • Increased innovation, creativity and problem-solving

Remember that diversity can apply to a number of factors like age, religion or race. Patients often report feeling greater trust when their healthcare provider is from the same racial background, for example. Diversity also helps employers, and research shows that workplaces with more racial, ethnic and gender diversity produce higher financial returns for their company than those with less diversity in these areas.

In essence, diversity says to patients and families “we welcome people from diverse backgrounds here.” When patients receive this message, they feel more welcome and communication improves leading to better health outcomes for patients and greater job satisfaction for nurses.

Learn more about Eastern Michigan University’s online RN to BSN program.


Centers for Disease Control and Prevention: Cultural Competence in Health and Human Services Why Is Diversity in Nursing So Important?

Harvard Health Publishing: Racism and Discrimination in Health Care: Providers and Patients

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention: Health, United States, 2015

MedpageToday: The Importance of Diversity in Nursing

MedPro Healthcare Staffing: The Benefits of a Diverse Workforce for a Healthcare Facility

Johns Hopkins Medicine: Diversity in Medicine Has Measurable Benefits

McKinsey & Company: Why Diversity Matters