Healthcare workers in the U.S. treat millions of patients each year. As the nation becomes more religiously, racially, and ethnically diverse, the patient population that healthcare providers encounter will change. For doctors, nurses, and staff to successfully treat patients from varied backgrounds, they must become aware of cultural differences. This post will explain why cultural sensitivity in healthcare matters and how practitioners can develop cultural competency.
Why Cultural Sensitivity in Healthcare Matters
Each year, the United States population becomes more racially diverse. The non-Christian population is also growing. The U.S. population is living longer, so the elderly population is also increasing. These demographic changes will significantly alter the patient populations that healthcare providers see each year.
The changing client population impacts the healthcare profession because many populations have unique health concerns. The CDC notes that in many communities of color, serious diseases such as cancer, diabetes, heart disease, HIV/AIDS occur at higher rates than they do in white communities. Moreover, illnesses in patients from nondominant groups are more likely to be misdiagnosed or overlooked. According to government research, LGBTQ+ persons are more likely to experience mental health issues such as depression and anxiety. This population is also more likely to use alcohol, tobacco, and other drugs.
Other factors can impact a community’s access to quality healthcare. When patients and healthcare providers to not speak the same language, communication barriers can complicate the patient’s ability to understand and follow medical advice. A patient may have religious objections to a particular course of treatment. I had this experience. I grew up with my mother, who is a Jehovah’s Witness. Certain medical treatments are forbidden for practicing Witnesses. After I went away to college, I had a medical emergency that called for a blood transfusion. I was an adult at the time and chose the transfusion, which saved my life. However, if the medical emergency would have occurred just a few years earlier my family, our healthcare providers, and me, would have been in a much more complicated situation.
Clearly, a healthcare provider’s ability to communicate with different populations impacts care and outcomes. Cultural sensitivity in healthcare systems, and in individual providers, is essential.
How Healthcare Providers Can Develop Cultural Sensitivity
For treatment to succeed, patients must trust caregivers.
A lack of cultural sensitivity in healthcare can cause patients to lose that trust. Because the medical profession lacks diversity, healthcare providers must make a special effort to build trust in patients from diverse backgrounds.
Research shows that patients are more likely to trust caregivers who share their own background. Patients have good reason to be skeptical. Healthcare providers often allow implicit biases to affect their decisions. According to numerous studies, white doctors and medical students tend to underestimate pain in African American patients. Male doctors often dismiss complaints from female patients. Doctors display less relaxed body language with patients of color. In short, patients pick up on verbal and non-verbal cues when a provider is not comfortable treating them; often caused by a lack of sharing cultural norms.
Providers are often unaware of their own biases. Most care professionals wouldn’t dream of directly making a biased statement or decision. But unconscious bias is real. While our biases cannot be completely eradicated, they can be managed. To develop cultural sensitivity, healthcare providers must begin by examining their own biases. Doctors, nurses, and other staff must reflect on their biases toward those who do not share their religion, race, gender, or sexual orientation. Though this may seem like a minor step, making implicit biases explicit is the first step toward addressing them.
Demonstrating Cultural Sensitivity in a Healthcare Practice
Beyond self-evaluation, healthcare providers and organizations can take several steps to develop cultural sensitivity. Here are a few steps to consider:
- Educate and Train All Staff. Any and all staff who interact with patients – from the reception desk to medical personnel to the billing department – must be educated about cultural differences. Each team member must know the organization’s expectations for cultural awareness. To ensure that employees are putting the training into practice, organizations can make cultural sensitivity part of employee evaluations.
- Evaluate Your Intake Policies and Procedures. Though it may seem trivial, something as simple as an intake form can make a patient feel uncomfortable. To avoid this problem, use inclusive language on all forms. For example, rather than providing the two standard options under “gender,” provide multiple options or a blank line so patients can correctly self-identify. The same is true for race and other identifiers. Being inclusive will not only make patients feel more comfortable, it will provide more complete and accurate patient data.
- Use Interpreting Services. Patients speak a variety of languages. Care providers should attempt to learn the languages spoken by their patients, even if only a few phrases. If needed, partner with an interpreting service to ensure that providers and patients can understand one another. At the very least, make sure that patients feel that someone is available who truly understands what they are trying to communicate, which requires a combination of language skills and cultural competency.
- Evaluate Your Office Décor. Most medical offices display posters, literature, magazines, and other items. These minor items can make a major difference for patients. Posters that feature people of varying races, non-English languages, or same-sex couples send positive messages. Similarly, providing reading material and brochures that reflect a variety of languages and backgrounds lets patients know that providers respect their culture.
Trust is the bedrock of the patient-provider relationship. Developing cultural sensitivity in healthcare is a critical first step toward building that trust. For more information about bias, culture, and other topics, enroll in The Equity Toolkit. This progressive course will give healthcare professionals the tools they need to be effective in an increasingly diverse world.