Just recently, I was honored to deliver the closing keynote address at the National Association of Hispanic Nurses (NAHN) inaugural Latino Leadership Institute in San Antonio, Texas. My recent blog post lavishes well-deserved praise on NAHN, and I want to use my experience in San Antonio as a jumping off point for discussing the importance of diversity and cultural competence for the nursing profession, the healthcare system writ large, and your nursing career.

National Ass'n of Hispanic Nurses Leadership Institute

Diversity and the NAHN Magic

Diversity and cultural competence often receive lip service in the healthcare world (and other spheres, as well), but when it’s seen as central to our personal and collective mission, anything can happen.

Throughout my own nursing career journey, I’ve worked very closely with the Hispanic community, and being semi-fluent in Spanish has certainly helped. I feel a personal closeness with Latinos, and that’s why delivering the closing keynote at NAHN’s Latino Leadership Institute was such an honor and provided a sense of coming home.

National Association of Hispanic Nurses

The leaders of NAHN recognize that the Hispanic nursing community is itself a diverse family hailing from a plethora of countries with vast similarities and considerable differences in culture, food, traditions, and histories. From European Hispanics to those from Central America, South America, Mexico, the Caribbean, and other locations, Latino nurses have much to share and learn from one another.

Similarly, if we pull the camera back on the nursing profession as a whole, we can see that we all have many things in common (our love of nursing, our desire to serve others, and many aspects of our training), and we also have vastly different approaches and opinions about so many subjects.

In my aforementioned blog post, I wrote the following:

What I see in NAHN is a microcosm of the wider nursing community. I see a community and organization with a heart-centered leadership that sees the organization for what it is: a diverse group with a similar mission, much in common, and many opinions and points of view to consider. I also see an organization that recognizes its place in the wider conversation and the larger world of which it is an integral part. 

NAHN is a forward-thinking nursing association that nurtures its leaders, embraces its own diversity, encourages cultural competence, and obviously walks its talk when it comes to seeing the larger picture and looking bravely into the future. Many of its members are nurse/citizen activists who are dedicated to a vision that they strive to bring to fruition, and it was refreshing and inspiring to be a witness to that vision. 

Diversity and Cultural Competence

Embracing diversity and developing cultural competence is key to your long-term success as a nurse. Of course, we nurses need to understand the cultural influences impacting our patients’ relative ability to comprehend their medical treatment, as well as whether that treatment is acceptable within the context of their beliefs and values. We need to do our best to be sensitive to our patients’ cultural backgrounds, including but not limited to religion, folk medicine practices, and family structures.

While racial, ethnic, and cultural diversity is what we generally think of when terms like diversity and cultural competence are bandied about, there are other cultures to also consider. Our patients who are lesbian, gay, transgender, queer, gender queer, or intersex have their own cultures that are superimposed over racial and ethnic cultural family influences.

Thus, a patient who is a Hispanic trans-man of Mexican heritage will require particular attention and sensitivity to his healthcare needs as opposed to a Puerto Rican woman who has been married to the same man for 45 years, or a Chinese-American individual who identifies as intersex and gender queer.

So, when we talk about diversity, we need to broaden our view and the definitions we use to include people of all kinds, not just the safe or easy categories that we feel comfortable with. In the 21st century, diversity and cultural competence are deeper, wider, and more complex than ever before, and it’s our responsibility to understand and react accordingly.

Whether you’re a nurse clinician, researcher, educator, or a nurse involved in policy at the legislative level, embracing difference and being a champion of diversity is your responsibility and privilege.

Cultural Competence and Your Nursing Career

While cultural competence is often defined and discussed in terms of your work with patients, I also believe that it should and can be a defining aspect of your nursing career and your own humanity.

When it comes to your nursing career, you will have the need to work with a wide variety of colleagues from a plethora of cultures, whether those cultures are based on gender orientation, ethnicity, sexual orientation, or other areas of life that impact how people choose to define themselves.

As you navigate your nursing career, you of course come into contact with a diversity of colleagues from a wide variety of disciplines. Physical therapists, MSWs, chaplains, physicians, and occupational therapists have their own culture, so to speak, and you must steer your way through the vocabulary, outlook, and educational background of each.

Furthermore, each of those professional colleagues hails from an ethnic background, family structure, and religious/spiritual belief system, not to mention sexual orientation and other defining factors.

Thus, your cultural competence can be widely and generously defined far beyond that of your patients. After all, your colleagues are people, too.

Your relative success in the workplace will be defined by how you recognize, appreciate, and celebrate where each individual you encounter comes from, and how to relate to that person in kind.

Opening Your Mind and Heart

We began this episode discussing my weekend with the National Association of Hispanic Nurses and how I was so moved by what I experienced. It’s through organizations like NAHN that we find the courage to embrace diversity, dive deep into what it means to be human in the 21st century, and make a choice about who we want to be in the world in relation to the people we encounter along the way.

Organizations like NAHN show that it can be done, and we can all take a page from the books of others who walk their talk in the world in a way that we can admire and emulate.

Whether you’re meeting with a Scandinavian-American surgeon, a Nicaraguan transgender patient, or the same-sex spouse of a nursing colleague, your ability to open your mind and heart to everyone you encounter is the hallmark of an open-minded 21st-century nurse, and that open-mindedness will take you places as you move forward in your career.

Nurture your mind and heart, embrace diversity in all its glory, and be the nurse you’re truly meant to be.


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Keith Carlson, RN, BSN, NC-BCKeith Carlson is a holistic career coach for nurses, award-winning nurse blogger, writer, podcaster, speaker, author, and popular career columnist. With two decades of nursing experience, Keith deeply understands the issues faced by 21st-century nurses.

Keith’s two podcasts, RNFM Radio and The Nurse Keith Show, offer inspiration and practical support to nurses seeking to create meaningful, satisfying lives and careers. Keith’s message of savvy career management and professional satisfaction reaches tens of thousands of nurses worldwide. Keith can be found on Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, and Instagram—as well as at NurseKeith.com.