The U.S. is, by design, a culturally diverse country, and is becoming more so with each passing decade. Successful medical practices recognize this fact and are adjusting how they deliver care to meet the needs of patients from a variety of cultural, ethnic, racial, and religious backgrounds. One way to ensure that all patients feel comfortable in your office is to encourage cultural competence among the staff. Being culturally competent simply means that you respect diversity, that you make a reasonable attempt to understand differences, and that you treat people in ways that demonstrate you are aware of the unique aspects of their culture.
For example, in some cultures, family members (rather than patients themselves) are informed about a challenging medical diagnosis or poor prognosis. Among certain religious groups, an extremely high value is placed on personal modesty. And in more formal cultures, it would be considered impolite for a receptionist, nurse, or even a doctor to call a patient by his or her first name. Understanding your patient population is the first step in becoming culturally competent. Take a few minutes to think about which minority groups your practice serves. Then, challenge your staff to boost their cultural competence by using some of the following ideas.
Discuss biases. Whether we like to admit it or not, most of us have certain biases regarding people from cultures and backgrounds that are different from our own. Often times, these biases are not intentional or in any way mean-spirited, but are instead quite unconscious. Having a discussion (perhaps at a staff meeting) about what views employees hold about members of the different populations you serve can be a useful exercise in debunking stereotypes.
Learn from one another. If you live in an area that has a reasonably broad mix of people, chances are that you have a wealth of knowledge right in your office. Perhaps one of your nurses is from Mexico and can shed some light on unique values held among Latinos related to health and healthcare. Or maybe one of your doctors is a practicing Muslim and can discuss what patients from that religious group expect from their healthcare providers. Take advantage of the cultural diversity within your office to learn how to better care for patients.
Take your time. When communicating with patients for whom English is not their first language you may need to speak more slowly and clearly than you normally do, be willing to ask them to repeat a question or comment that you don’t understand, and take steps to make sure that patients understand what you are saying to them-especially when giving instructions related to care (i.e., where to go to get lab work or an x-ray or how to take care of a biopsy site at home).
Learn the language. You may or may not have the time or interest to become fluent in another language, but if you serve, for example, a large Spanish-speaking population, you would be well-served by learning at least enough to engage in basic dialogue. Look for a beginning language class at your local adult education or community college, or try one of the virtual learning systems such as Rosetta Stone. At minimum, keep a translation dictionary nearby for when you’re stuck trying to communicate with a patient.
When you embrace cultural diversity, you’ll likely find that you learn a great deal that will enhance your life, both professionally and personally. Enjoy the education and the journey.