Nursing conference highlights importance of Hmong representation in health care

Hmong nurses from across the country are in St. Paul for a first-of-its-kind event highlighting the importance of culture in health care.

The inaugural conference of the Hmong Nursing Association began Friday at the University of St. Thomas.

Organizers told 5 EYEWITNESS NEWS that there is a serious lack of Hmong representation in health care, despite Minnesota’s large Hmong population.

Minnesota is home to a Hmong population of 81,000, making it the largest urban concentration of Hmong people in the United States, according to the Wilder Foundation.

“One in three children in St. Paul Public Schools is a Hmong child,” said Maikao Hang, the conference’s keynote speaker and founding dean of the Morrison College of Health at the University of St. Thomas. “Minnesota’s Hmong population is growing, but there are far fewer Hmong nurses than you might expect.”

Minnesota had 118,000 registered nurses in 2021, according to data from the Minnesota Board of Nursing. Hang said only 125 of those nurses were Hmong.

“The way we think about some of these underrepresented populations in nursing: Anything we can do to advance nursing education and the field is a really good thing,” Hang said.

She said knowing patients’ cultures firsthand can improve their hospital stays and health outcomes.

Dew Yang, a St. Paul nurse who attended the conference, said she works with many elderly Hmong patients on home visits.

“I’m the bridge between them,” Yang said. “I interpret correctly in Hmong and in a Hmong way and then the elder understands.”

She said she was able to respect the wishes of dying patients, in accordance with their tradition.

“I say, ‘You’re going to die now. What do you like best?’ And many of them say, “Please put on my costume, the Hmong costume. Don’t let me die in a hospital gown,” Yang said. “Every day I go home happy knowing that I made a big difference with this person.”

In addition to hosting this new conference, St. Thomas University is opening a new school of nursing in the fall. The university says the school will focus on equity and diversity in healthcare, including recruiting immigrants and refugees to careers in healthcare.

A St. Thomas spokesperson said 50 students are registered for the program and about a third of them are people of color. Four students in the introductory class are Hmong.

Hang hopes to see Minnesota’s many cultures reflected in its nursing students and eventually in the state’s hospital systems.

The nurses told 5 EYEWITNESS NEWS that this conference helped them learn how to bridge the gap with their colleagues as well.

“I’m always very lonely in my profession. I have to explain to my supervisor, to my people that I work with, “Look, this is my culture,” Yang said. “You made me feel good today.”

Hang added: “We need all kinds of people from different backgrounds to look after us. The Hmong community is here to stay, and it is a large population. Everyone must recruit and attract a new population among us.”

The two-day conference in St. Thomas is expected to attract more than 200 nurses.

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