A conversation with Dr. Martha A. Dawson, National Black Nurses Association President
As a response to COVID-19, organizations had to quickly adapt to the emerging and urgent needs of their communities. At Pfizer, we mobilized alongside community organizations worldwide to address the most pressing issues affecting vulnerable populations. In May 2020, The Pfizer Foundation* awarded our long-time partner, the National Black Nurses Association (NBNA), $1M to launch its RETHINK and RE:SET and programs, which provide vaccination education and mental health services to frontline nurses, respectively.
Recently, Caroline Roan, Pfizer’s Chief Sustainability Officer and President of The Pfizer Foundation connected with Dr. Martha A. Dawson, President of NBNA to discuss the progress and impact of both programs.
Caroline Roan (CR): NBNA has been a great source of support to Black nurses for many years. How does the organization help break down health disparities through programming designed specifically for the Black community?
Dr. Martha A. Dawson (MD): A major key to addressing health disparities is first to build a trusting and respectful relationship with community members. NBNA has a rich history of using our Collaborative Community Health Model that allows us to address the spiritual, physical, mental, and educational need where we live, work, worship, play and nurture our families. NBNA members have a legacy with a wide range of partners to address health issues through approaches and programs designed for our targeted population and the diversity within our communities.
CR: The RETHINK program looks to increase vaccine confidence among the Black community by educating on misconceptions and myths that can be a result of lack of trust in the healthcare system. How has the current pandemic exposed or heightened existing misconceptions that hinder vaccine confidence among Black communities? What specifically have you seen?
MD: During this pandemic, there has been a problem with so much misinformation and disinformation with much of it coming from outside of the Black community. When people make statements that they know are incorrect, this disinformation makes it harder to provide accurate information and build trust. What our members and I are seeing is that people want honest and timely information. NBNA members have educated us around the science of both the virus and vaccines, and some of our members participated in the clinical trials.
CR: In some cases, the history of mistreatment, disregard and inequities faced by the Black community within the government and healthcare system have led to skepticism about the safety and efficacy of vaccines. Through RETHINK, how have you worked to build vaccine confidence, and do you think it’s leading to increased vaccination rates of Black Americans and other underserved communities?
MD: NBNA is one of the conveners of the Black Coalition Against COVID (BCAC). The BCAC recognized the importance of the Black population receiving information from healthcare providers and professionals that look like them and who have had similar lived experiences. The BCAC have reached more than 5 million people from diverse backgrounds and we have seen an increase in the percentage of Blacks that have received a COVID vaccine and those that plan to get one. Our local members are educating and vaccinating as we lead by example. NBNA, and our chapters in 34 states and D.C., are holding 3-10 townhall meetings per week. We’re posting pictures of NBNA nurses receiving the vaccinations. Since the start of the COVID pandemic, I’ve given more than 78 presentations and interviews, written articles and op-eds. Blacks nurses are educating on TV, social media and radio.
CR: What in particular do you think is helping effect change?
MD: Prior to the emergency authorizations of the vaccines, I observed a trend in the media referring to hesitancy in the Black community versus acknowledging that Black people had a right to ask questions and seek information. As a result, we’re using a vaccine confidence model based on acknowledgement, education, and action with follow-up.
CR: We all know that mental health is a huge part of living a healthy life, and that the pandemic has exacerbated mental health issues for many. How has the RE:SET program helped re-shape the conversation about mental health among the Black community and its significance to overall health and wellbeing?
MD: The RE:SET program provides a platform to make it more comfortable to hold a conversation around mental health needs. The personal sharing of stories by presenters and attendees reaffirmed that self-help groups are effective and let others know that it’s OK to ask for assistance.
CR: NBNA members can receive assistance in a variety of ways to help them overcome challenges exacerbated by COVID-19 through RE:SET. Could you share more about this approach and what you have seen be most effective for nurses that have participated in the program?
MD: The program’s multi-faceted design of workshops, social entertainment, and one-on-one engagement provided options to assist individuals with personalized interventions. NBNA has hosted webinars and podcasts of “real” nurses talking about their need for mental health counseling; the intersection between faith and mental wellness; music jam sessions to dance or walk by; and some comic relief… all to try to help keep nurses mentally healthy and resilient. The help text is a popular feature of the program. The RE:SET program is a way for nurses to better understand that they need tools to help them better deal with the overwhelming stresses of nursing and nursing through a pandemic. The RE:SET program gives the nurses the tools to strengthen themselves mentally, stay resilient and marshal the forces to continue providing exemplary care to their patients.
CR: What can the pharmaceutical industry do to maintain and increase gains being made by organizations like NBNA?
MD: The pharmaceutical industry can strengthen and build new relationships to increase the number of Black and Brown scientists, administrators, and board members. We need more Black doctors, nurses, pharmacists, and researchers. We need investment in our K-12 youth, and the NBNA mini nurse academy and entrepreneur nurse network. NBNA and Pfizer had a relationship prior to COVID which has been strengthened during this pandemic because we have collaborated on education, vaccination, and service pre-, during and post-COVID meeting the needs of the Black community. However, more change is needed to improve health outcomes and obtain STEM education. Pharmaceutical companies committed to addressing health and wellness, healthcare equity, economic growth, and human caring can join together to ensure urban, inner city and rural schools have updated labs, equipment and better schools. These companies can tap into the remote learning we have used during this pandemic and have their scientists join lab classes in schools and provide virtual labs and tours of their facilities, as well as develop summer internships for Black students.
CR: Could you share a highlight or impact story from someone who has participated in these programs and how it has made a difference?
MD: NBNA has 108 chapters, and it’s amazing how members across the country have embraced addressing the needs of many that are forgotten by our health systems, such as the homeless, incarcerated persons, and those living with mental illnesses. A perfect example is that a number of our members have worked to ensure that the homeless receive meals, a place for a bath, medication management, and mental health interventions. One of our nurses in Miami has been working for years to ensure the homeless could get a flu shot each year. When the COVID-19 vaccines became available, she was able to convince this population that they needed it… that this was only preventive treatment. She demonstrated the importance of trust and respectful relationships.
*The Pfizer Foundation is a charitable organization established by Pfizer Inc. It is a separate legal entity from Pfizer Inc. with distinct legal restrictions.