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Dr. Elizabeth Cohn: Nurses who vote

On paper, health equity leader Dr. Elizabeth Cohn shines as a Titan of many titles. Among an ever-evolving list of accolades, her resume boasts such standout roles as Vice President for Health Equity at Northwell Health, Rudin Professor and Associate Provost Emeritus at the City University of New York (CUNY), Nurse Faculty Scholar in Health Disparities and Genetic and Genomic Research at Columbia University, and even a coveted distinction as an Obama White House Champion of Change.

In person, though, Cohn is quick to acknowledge her humbler roots, a story that begins with her work for Nassau County’s fire service more than 40 years ago.

“This was in the late ‘70s, very early ‘80s, before women in fire departments was a thing,” Cohn recalls. “But I was in the fire department, and I worked for the Nassau County Fire Service.”

When Cohn first entered the fire service, “there was not a single women’s bathroom anywhere in the Fire Service Academy,” she says. “There were two or three giant lockers filled with Playboy, Penthouse, bathroom magazines for men. It was a very different time,” she laughs.

Despite these barriers, Cohn persevered, ultimately climbing the ladder to become a fire chief. At the same time, she was actively pursuing yet another service mission: a calling to the field of nursing, a career that has flourished ever since she earned her first nursing degree from Nassau County Community College.

“So I had a very regular, humble beginning – I definitely didn’t burst onto the scene in a big way,” Cohn explains. “But I would say I’ve always had a leaning towards service and the health of my community, and that’s been the biggest thread for everything that I’ve done since that time.”

For Cohn, this journey has transformed into “bigger and bigger concentric circles of trying to health people,” she describes. “So I was helping people as an EMT and then a paramedic, and then a nurse, then helping supervise other nurses. And then I was like, ‘Maybe I should teach nursing,’ so I did that. And then eventually fast forward, I got a [doctoral] degree from Columbia and did additional post doctoral work at the National Institutes of Health [NIH] in minority health.”

As Cohn’s career was blossoming, so too was her perspective; she realized how healthcare and policy were inextricably intertwined. “I think at first, I didn’t really embrace policy,” she says. But over time, she realized how much policy was driving the health of her community: policy that either helped people become people or made people sicker. 

“At some point, I was just like, ‘If I am going to change policy, I have to start talking to policymakers and start seeing what happens outside of the machine,” Cohn recalls.

At the same time, about 10 years ago, Cohn was diving deep into her NIH-funded research on health equity and precision medicine, with a focus on genetics and genomics. “And when we first started thinking about how this would affect science and health, the two things that collided were healthcare and race,” Cohn explains, highlighting race as a social construct.

“So if you think about the actual differences between us – for example, eyeglass prescriptions or blood type – we are different from each other, but not by race.” Cohn says. “But then, if you don’t consider the effect of racism on health, you miss a big part of why our healthcare system isn’t working for some people,” she points out.

Thus was born the All of Us research program, a historic effort led by Cohn and colleagues to build a vast NIH database of individual-level data, including both biological and environmental factors, that could inform and ultimately improve healthcare.

“To make a long story short, we did a conference, we wrote some papers, and we got the attention of the White House,” Cohn reports. “And that’s how I ended up working with NIH and the White House trying to construct a program that both accounted for the genetic differences and also measured the effect of race in our society. By doing that, we created a program, and the program created policy.”

“I suddenly realized, ‘Oh, I see how the sausage is made,’ and now I’ve been doing it ever since,” Cohn shares.

With a new and burgeoning passion for the intersection of health and policy, Cohn soon channeled her energy into yet another initiative, one that reconnected her with her roots as a nurse practitioner. In 2018, Cohn founded her nonprofit Nurses Who Vote, a nonpartisan group with the mission to promote civic engagement, particularly voting, among U.S. nurses.

The impetus for this project came when Cohn was teaching a health policy class to doctoral nursing students at CUNY. “We were reading a standard textbook, and it was talking about how health policy is made and what a difference it makes,” she says. “So the students were going to all pick a health issue that had a policy component, and we were going to sort of dig into it. But as we were working through the class, we realized that everything was a mess – vaccine policies were all over the map, access issues were all over the map, expanded Medicare was all over the map,” Cohn explains. 

“Together, the class and I started looking state by state – and we realized that in states where people vote and laws were better, people were healthier, and they had better policies. And in other states, they didn’t,” she says. “So eight clinical doctorate nurses and I got together and said, we need to make sure that nurses are voting because they’re all working nurses – people working in all kinds of things, like dialysis and diabetes care.”

At first, with few resources at their disposal but plenty of inspiration, Cohn and her determined crew set out to help register as many nurses as possible to vote. “We were doing on-paper registration drives at every nursing conference that we went to,” Cohn says. “It started like that – we started registering people just on paper. We didn’t even make copies of it or anything like that; we just counted the number of people that we registered, and then eventually, we tried to build more and more into it.”

Now, Nurses Who Vote stands as a thriving community of civic-minded clinicians, one with a new, audacious goal: to galvanize at least 2.5 million nurses across the nation to vote in the 2024 election season. As part of this effort, Nurses Who Vote partners with another nonpartisan group, Vot-ER, to help potential voters register quickly and electronically. At conferences, civic health fairs, and other training events throughout the year, Cohn and her colleagues don badges with special QR codes; these codes, when scanned, let individuals check their voter registration status or register to vote right from their phones.

But Cohn, a true virtuoso of versatility, doesn’t stop there. With a career she describes as ever-expanding concentric circles, centered on tireless service to her community, her civic engagement story also comes full circle. Alongside her fight to overhaul health policy on a national level, Cohn still gives back within her own county, serving as an election worker and poll supervisor in New York’s 3rd congressional district.

It’s through this type of service that Cohn urges fellow community members, both clinicians and laypeople alike, to write their own civic engagement stories – even if they don’t have all of Cohn’s awe-inspiring accolades.

“It’s a very uplifting experience – Democrats and Republicans working together to assure a fair election,” she says. 

But even if working the polls isn’t your passion, “there’s lots of ways to be [civically] involved,” Cohn says. Voting, of course, is one important prescription; so too, Cohn encourages, is the act of simply talking to people, connecting with the community, re-committing to the art of conversation.

“Any type of civic engagement can improve your health – especially now, because people are working from home, and a lot of them are socially isolated,” she says. “So I think becoming involved in any group that is providing a service, whether it’s a soup kitchen, or a church that has a knitting group…  Anything that can help you connect to other people and feel more socially connected, can help people feel better about our situation. I think we are not speaking to one another, and we need to start doing that again,” she says. 

Join a conversation circle and connect with your community at “Conversations New York,” a free dialogue group co-directed by Cohn and her “adorable dad,” Ron Gross: 


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