Initiative to improve access for people of color to health care jobs
GRAND RAPIDS — Creating a level playing field for people of color in Michigan who want to pursue careers in the health care sector will lay the foundation for their success and the state’s future economic growth.
That’s according to Shannon Wilson, executive director of the Grand Rapids African American Health Institute.
Wilson in late June joined with leaders of seven colleges and universities in West Michigan to announce a $400,000 planning grant from the W.K. Kellogg Foundation to create “Pathways to Careers in Healthcare” for area students of color.
Aquinas College, Calvin College, Davenport University, Ferris State University, Grand Rapids Community College, Grand Valley State University and Hope College will participate in the study to develop “college-specific” plans of action to engage students of color in reducing barriers to them choosing to study health care professions.
“We’ve known for a long time that these disparities exist,” Wilson said. “Over the last two years, we really recognized that we do a good job of training practitioners in Michigan, but we do not do that with people of color.”
According to Wilson, the disparity stems from a lack of exposure to health care fields, the financial cost and the lack of understanding for the requirements to attain a career in the industry. As well, many young people of color are their family’s first member to go to college and are inexperienced in navigating the higher educational system.
In addition to working with the seven partner colleges and universities, the initiative also will include work with three area high schools to survey their counselors to see how prepared they are to advocate for health care careers on behalf of their students, Wilson said.
“We also will be looking at each of the colleges and universities to see if they have existing programs with middle school students and see what we can incorporate into a region-wide program,” she said.
For example, GVSU offers a summer camp for students between ages 12-15 that focuses on health profession exploration. The camp is free and preference is given to students attending Grand Rapids Public Schools.
“We know that in order to increase diversity in health care careers, we need to expose kids in K-12,” said Tina Barnikow, GVSU’s senior director for health. “The summer camp gives students hands-on exposure to a wide variety of professions. We also have an Early Science Academy that is open to high school juniors and seniors in Kent County where they can also earn college credits.”
SEEKING ‘BRUTAL TRUTH’
While each of the seven partner colleges and universities have programs that address issues of diversity and inclusion, they will be fully analyzing them to see what they look like for people of color and how they can be improved.
Arelis Diaz, director of the office of the president at WKKF, said they will be looking for the “brutal truth.”
Among the truths that Wilson highlights are that white workers remain the majority in all 30 health occupations studied, representing more than 50 percent of workers in almost every occupation. She said whites are overrepresented in 23 of 30 occupations.
“Blacks are underrepresented in all occupations except among dietitians and nutritionists and respiratory therapists,” Wilson said. “Hispanics are significantly underrepresented in all of the occupations in health diagnosing and treating practitioners occupations.”
Physicians and nurses represent the two sectors with the highest minority representation, but it declines dramatically after that in areas such as occupational therapy or physicians assistants, Wilson said.
“When you do get people of color into these programs, they are people coming from Chicago and Detroit who will go back after they’re done, so we’re not getting these practitioners here,” Wilson said. “When you go to larger hospitals like the University of Michigan or those in metro Detroit, you see African Americans in service positions. When you go higher, there’s no diversity.
“When we started to look at what we could do to change that, the colleges and universities seemed like the most logical place to start.”
The leadership at GRCC said they want to ensure the percentage of African Americans in health care fields mirrors the population.
By 2050, 40 percent of Michigan’s working-age population will be people of color, and 45 percent of children will be children of color, according to the “Business Case for Racial Equity,” a recent study conducted by WKKF and Altarum.
“Studies have shown that African American patients have better health outcomes in situations where African Americans are better represented in health care,” said Laurie Chesley, provost and executive vice president for academic and student affairs at GRCC. “So, you’re not only improving socioeconomic conditions, but you’re also improving health outcomes.”
As the only two-year college participating in the initiative, GRCC is uniquely positioned to serve students who may be unable to attend or afford a four-year institution and students who choose to pursue advanced degrees at other institutions, Chesley said. Students often begin their education in health care at GRCC and go on to pursue bachelor’s or advanced degrees, including medical school, she added.
“We have a strong history of transfer education, particularly in STEM fields, and we are often the gateway for health care fields studies,” Chesley said.
In addition to African Americans, the initiative focuses on other ethnic groups including Asian and Hispanic populations. Diaz said many subgroups remain underrepresented in health professions.
A family’s financial security is directly connected to how well that family and the children in it thrive in the community they call home, she added.
“If they don’t have a living wage, health insurance, or the transportation systems to get to work, all of those pieces impact the children,” Diaz said. “Educated and healthy kids and economically secure families will ensure that the whole community is healthy and successful.”
END THE CYCLE
A pipeline into the workforce forms a key part of this effort, and access to an education in a health care profession should be among the employment options, Diaz added. As well, patients have a higher comfort level when dealing with a health care professional who looks like them, she said, citing the Burmese population in Battle Creek as an example.
“Battle Creek has the largest Burmese population in the United States. If you were a child going to the hospital and you saw a nurse who spoke your language and looked like you, you would be more at ease and see who you could be,” Diaz said.
Those students who choose to pursue careers in health care have the opportunity to secure well-paying jobs that will ultimately help stop cycles of poverty in the communities where they live and work. But for that to happen, the students must commit to stay in those communities, Wilson said.
“We need to get pipelines of students from West Michigan who will stay in Michigan,” she said.
The partner colleges and universities are expected to have plans in place to follow through on the initiative by fall 2019.
“It’s powerful that we acknowledge that having a hierarchy of human value is no longer acceptable and that we can change the way that higher education is viewed,” Wilson said.