Editorial, Opinion

EDITORIAL: We need nurses of color in our hospitals

Brigham and Women’s Hospital is one of Boston’s largest hospitals, serving thousands of patients daily and employing countless medical staff members. It is considered to be one of the city’s best hospitals, delivering quality treatment that can’t be found elsewhere, and educating aspiring nurses and doctors. This esteemed hospital contributes to Boston’s reputation as a leader in medicine.

This week, two BWH nurses who have filed lawsuits accusing the hospital of racial discrimination will go to court. One of the nurses, Haitian-American Nirva Berthold, who had been working with cancer patients at BWH for nine years, sought a promotion in 2013 for a teaching job, but she claims to have been turned down because of the color of her skin.

The second nurse, Berthold’s co-worker Gessy Toussaint, who is also black, attempted to explain an argument between Berthold and a doctor to hospital officials. As a result, the hospital said it had problems with Toussaint’s quality of patient care — even after she scored 100 percent on a knowledge assessment the hospital made her complete. Toussaint later resigned from her position at Brigham in 2015, while Berthold still works at the hospital today.

Hospital officials confirmed that the woman who received the teaching position was white, but we have no knowledge about her qualifications or level of education. The hospital said it did not find Berthold a qualified candidate because she had not earned her master’s degree. She was three weeks away from doing so. But if the white woman who was hired had a substantially lower level of education or experience, this would be a case of racial discrimination, which is unacceptable.

Racial disparities in this country are troubling, with African-American and Hispanic-American communities suffering from more severe health complications and higher mortality rates than white communities. And in a city like Boston, with its deeply segregated neighborhoods and reputation for racism, there’s no doubt these disparities are more prominent here. It’s troubling to think that certain groups of people are dying just because they aren’t afforded with the same level of medical care as others.

This is why nurses of color are assets in hospitals for serving marginalized people. Patients will more likely trust nurses that resemble themselves and might be more inclined to make and show up to appointments if they know there are people in the hospital who come from their communities. If minority nurses feel like stepping down because of the way they are being treated, that could be harmful for those groups that die from curable diseases. Minority nurses essentially ensure better care for these patients.

People look at cases of discrimination in the workplace as a way for disappointed workers to bring attention to themselves. They think these people are just upset they didn’t land the promotion, so they are claiming something completely unfair and unreasonable to feel better about themselves. But what people seem to be ignoring is that these employees have to pay hefty legal fees and endure significant emotional labor for lodging these complaints. If they weren’t actually victims of discrimination, it is unlikely they would be going through all of the paperwork and energy required to sue a powerful institution.  

Though we don’t have much information on the candidate that the hospital chose to hire instead of Berthold, the case in court doesn’t look too convincing for the judge to rule in favor of the nurses. But even if the verdict doesn’t end up siding with the nurses, the conversation that comes out from this is an important one for hospitals across the nation to take into consideration.

Perhaps this could be a moment of introspection for Brigham and Women’s Hospital — a time for it to look more closely into how it treats not only employees, but also patients. Recently, there have been many studies reporting that patients of color are more likely to be denied care. This could be a time for the hospital to look into its practices and what sort of environment workers are creating for patients.

Hopefully Brigham and Women’s Hospital will be more cautious about the implications of their hiring decisions in the future, and realize the damaging effects it can have on many Boston’s residents seeking adequate medical care.

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