How Culture & Language Affect Healthcare Competency

Instructor: Clio Stearns

Clio has taught education courses at the college level and has a Ph.D. in curriculum and instruction.

If you are interested in helping people get good access to healthcare, then you probably know that culture and language can make a big difference. This lesson addresses the effect of language and culture on healthcare competency.

Understanding Healthcare Competency

When Maddy became a doctor, she promised herself that she would always strive to be as culturally competent as possible. In other words, Maddy wants to do everything she can to reach patients from diverse cultural and linguistic backgrounds in her primary care practice.

Maddy knows that access to good healthcare is not equal in this society, and she thinks that helping a diverse patient population feel empowered and cared for by their providers is part of working toward social justice.

She starts learning more about what it means to think about culture and language in the context of healthcare provision.

Cultural and Linguistic Diversity

As an Asian woman, Maddy remembers how important it was for her to see other Asians and women in positions of power and authority throughout her childhood and young adult life.

She realizes that it is key for patients coming to her office to see and work with culturally diverse providers and office staff. This can help patients feel more empowered and comfortable in the healthcare setting.

Maddy and her supervisors work hard to diversify their medical and office staff. They know that in their neighborhood, which has a large Latinx population, it will be especially important to hire Latinx people to show that they are committed to the community and to help build a culturally responsive practice.

Further, Maddy understands that language is a huge issue in primary care. She speaks Spanish as well as English and Mandarin, but she is excited that people in her clinic also speak Somali and Haitian Creole and can help patients communicate in those languages.

Maddy knows that having translators on hand is also key, since she and her staff cannot speak every language a patient might need. Her practice works with their hospital to develop a comprehensive, accessible and high-quality translation program.

Provider Training and Ongoing Development

Representation is not the only thing that makes medical care accessible across cultures, though. Maddy also knows that it is key for her and the other providers she works with to receive ongoing training in cultural competency.

This includes learning about cultural norms and ideas about medical care and well-being from the cultures her patients represent. For example, Maddy has learned that some patients come from cultures that believe in very formal relationships with physicians, and they will work better with her if she honors that formality.

Maddy also knows that people from some cultural backgrounds will have trouble naming and talking about some body parts, especially genitals, and she studies ways to help people describe their symptoms while still staying within what is culturally comfortable for them to discuss.

Signs and Instructions

Further, Maddy thinks that some basic things in her clinic can make all the difference in terms of meeting the needs of culturally and linguistically diverse patients.

She works with her supervisors and office staff to make sure all of the signs in their office are translated into the languages most commonly represented in their community. She also works to ensure that they have translations of instruction booklets and pamphlets to give patients to take home.

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