Conference Highlights Connection Between Improved Health and a Diversified Workforce

As society grapples with reducing health disparities tied to race and poverty, the nursing profession is facing the problem head-on by working to improve health outcomes and patient experiences by diversifying the nursing workforce. Organizations including the American Association of Colleges of Nursing and the American Nurses Association, among others, identify increased nursing diversity as a key strategy for improving access to healthcare and experiences within the healthcare system.


Dr. Judith Martin-Holland delivered the keynote. Photo by Alexander André

Administrators, faculty, and staff at the University of Wisconsin–Madison School of Nursing recognize that diversifying the nursing workforce requires creating more clear pathways to the profession for men and students of color. This work also hinges on partnerships between educational institutions and health systems, which must help develop and sustain both learning and working environments that welcome diverse nurses and enable them to succeed and thrive.

According to UW–Madison School of Nursing Dean Scott, there are compelling reasons to increase diversity among the nursing workforce and effective, evidence-based strategies for doing it. Yet it can be challenging to connect the right people with the right information to make it happen.

“Building those connections is a priority for us,” says Scott. “The School of Nursing and Wisconsin healthcare systems can and must work together to attract more diverse individuals to nursing and keep them in practice.”

The School of Nursing already employs an array of programs and strategies for attracting and retaining more diverse students, including a new effort to increase the Native American nursing student population as well as a new holistic admissions process designed to explore a greater variety of success indicators than test scores or high school grades. Another critical effort is an annual diversity conference that connects nurses, nursing students, healthcare employers and educators who are interested in developing more inclusive healthcare systems.

This year, the 2nd Annual Nursing Workforce Diversity Conference on February 7, 2018, attracted more than 100 attendees who explored ways to deliver more culturally congruent care, strategies for employers that want to recruit and retain diverse nurses, and how the school’s holistic admissions process will diversify future nursing classes. A career fair at the conference connected students and job-seeking nurses with more than 20 area employers and community organizations that are actively hiring.

“This conference and the conversations it advanced are vital for diversifying the workforce and helping to embed diversity and equity frameworks into healthcare systems,” says Dr. Mel Freitag, UW–Madison School of Nursing diversity officer.

The conference featured a range of leaders working to advance diversity in healthcare professions. Dr. Judith Martin-Holland, associate dean for academic programs and diversity, academic administrator and associate clinical professor at the University of California–San Francisco School of Nursing, delivered a keynote that offered ideas for ways not only to attract more diverse nurses, but to also support those students and nurses that encounter challenges to learning and practice because of perceived differences. Better support for nursing students and nurses, she argued, leads to greater engagement and better healthcare outcomes for patients.

Other featured local and regional experts participating in the conference included Dr. Dan Willis, associate dean for academic affairs, Rachel Azanleko-Akouete from Public Health Madison and Dane County, UW Health diversity and cultural congruency resource nurse Jessi Kendall, Dr. Freitag, Agrace Hospicecare diversity manager Brenda Gonzalez, and more.

Freitag notes that the conference grew significantly in its second year, which underscores the desire for evidence-based best practices, insights, and collaborations across the profession to diversify the workforce. “Diversity and inclusion work can really make a direct and immediate impact on the quality of patient care and entire health systems,” Dr. Freitag says.

It is critical, Dr. Freitag adds, that the school demonstrate its commitment not only to attracting and graduating more underrepresented students, but also offering them a fulfilling learning experience throughout their education.

“Only when we bridge what students learn with how they practice are we adequately preparing them for what they will encounter in their careers,” Freitag says.

This conference, she adds, is an important part of that work. “This conference advanced many of the conversations we were already having about diversity and also prompted some new discussions. I expect these diversity conversations that began at the conference will continue in our classrooms, clinical sites, and other healthcare settings in Wisconsin and beyond.”

The second annual Nursing Workforce Diversity Conference was funded in part by the Evjue Foundation, Inc., the charitable arm of The Capital Times. The Evjue Foundation supports educational, cultural, and charitable causes that enhance the quality of life in Madison and Dane County.