Nurses conference highlights importance of Hmong representation in health care

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

The inaugural Hmong Nurses Association Conference kicked off Friday at the University of St. Thomas.

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

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

“One in every three children in St. Paul Public Schools is a Hmong kid,” said Maykao Hang, keynote speaker for the conference and founding dean of the Morrison Family College of Health at the University of St. Thomas. “The Hmong population in Minnesota is getting bigger, but there are a lot 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: Whatever we can do to actually advance nursing education and the field is a really good thing,” Hang said.

She said having firsthand knowledge of patients’ cultures can improve their hospital stay and health outcomes.

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

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

She said she has been able to honor the wishes of dying patients, in keeping with their tradition.

“I say, ‘Now you are going to die. What do you like the most?’ And many of them say, ‘Please, put my costume on me, the Hmong costume. Don’t let me die with 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, the University of St. Thomas is opening a new School of Nursing in the fall. The university says the school will focus on health equity and diversity, including the recruitment of immigrants and refugees for careers in health care.

A St. Thomas spokesperson said 50 students are registered for the program and about one-third of them are students of color. Four students in the inaugural class are Hmong.

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

Nurses told 5 EYEWITNESS NEWS this conference helped them learn how to bridge the gap with coworkers as well.

“I’m always very lonely in my profession. I have to explain to my supervisor, to my people who I work with, ‘Here, this my culture,'” Yang said. “Today made me feel good.”

Hang added, “We need all kinds of people from all different backgrounds taking care of us. The Hmong community is here to stay, and it’s a large population. Everybody should be recruiting and appealing to new populations in our midst.”

The two-day conference at St. Thomas is expected to draw more than 200 nurses.