What is cultural competency, and why is it crucial to healthcare?

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What is cultural competency, and how does it fit in with healthcare? A recent survey among physicians in the United States shows that cultural competency is a key issue both for healthcare practitioners and their patients, so what are the obstacles to efficient cross-cultural communication in a healthcare setting?

Since the time of the Ancient Greeks, medical professionals have sworn the Hippocratic Oath, through which they commit to providing their patients with the best care possible. This includes patients of all different ethnic groups, religions, sexual orientations, and cultures.

But not all people feel the medical community understands their unique needs. For example, a study from Stanford University found that Black men were more likely to talk about their health concerns with a Black doctor. Another study found that Hispanic people in the United States delay going to the doctor because they do not understand the healthcare system.

And not all doctors may believe they are capable of serving patients of all backgrounds. Past research shows that doctors from minority backgrounds, as well as female doctors, are more likely to serveTrusted Source minority, financially precarious, and Medicaid-eligible populations.

Furthermore, a study from 2015 found that physicians and medical students felt underpreparedTrusted Source when seeing patients who identified as lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, or queer. These are some of the reasons why cultural competency plays a large role in patient care.

A new survey conducted by Healthgrades — an online resource offering comprehensive information about physicians and hospitals — found that 31% of responding physicians agreed that their level of cultural competency affected their ability to provide the best possible care for their patients either somewhat or a lot.

Additionally, the survey found a generational difference when it comes to a doctor’s willingness to improve their cultural competency. Younger doctors, with fewer years of practice experience, appeared more interested in additional cultural competency training when compared to older doctors.

What is cultural competency?

Cultural competency is the ability to understand and respect the beliefs, values, and histories of individuals of all cultural backgrounds.

“For medical professionals, cultural competency is essential in providing effective quality care to patients of diverse backgrounds, particularly people from historically marginalized communities,” said Dr. Luz Maria Garcini, assistant professor in the Department of Psychological Sciences at Rice University, faculty scholar for the Center of the United States and Mexico, Baker Institute for Public Policy, and affiliate faculty at the Center for Research to Advance Community Health at UT Health San Antonio.

“Cultural competence improves interpersonal interactions, helps to build trust, conveys respect, reduces biases that may lead to inaccurate diagnoses and treatments, and increases the chances that patients may be more compliant with the medical recommendations given,” she told Medical News Today.

Dr. Arlette Herry, assistant dean of multicultural affairs at St. George’s University, agreed that cultural competence is of paramount importance in the healthcare system.

“We know that it leads to improved patient outcomes, reduced care disparities and inefficiencies, and ultimately, decreased costs,” she explained. “The social determinants of health are not the same for everyone, so health inequities create a serious challenge for patients and healthcare workers alike.”

Cultural competency vs. cultural humility

“Cultural competence, in combination with cultural humility, is a powerful tool in addressing these disparities that people from diverse backgrounds experience, whether that diversity is culture, race, sexual orientation, socioeconomic status, religion, gender, disability — invisible or visible — to name a few,” Dr. Herry added.

Additionally, Dr. Herry pointed out that cultural humility acknowledges the historical realities — such as the Tuskegee studyTrusted Source and the Stanford Prison experimentTrusted Source — that have given rise to a lack of trust in the healthcare system among vulnerable populations.

“It also requires healthcare professionals to develop an awareness of their implicit biases and how they affect patient care as well as interactions with their colleagues,” she continued. “This can only happen with a continuous process of introspection, reflection, and self-evaluation.”

How aware are doctors of cultural barriers?

In the Healthgrades survey, 831 United States doctors were asked if a person’s personal identity traits — including language, race, gender, sexual orientation, and religion — had ever stopped them from providing the best possible care to them.

More than half — 54% — of responding physicians said none of these had affected their ability to provide care. Of the individual traits, language was the largest reason at 31%.

Healthgrades reportedly conducted a separate survey with the public at large. When asked if any of their personal identity traits prevented them from receiving proper care from their doctor, 10% of the participants who identified as people of color stated “yes.”

When doctors were asked to rate their readiness to care for people of different cultural or racial backgrounds, 87% rated themselves as “excellent” or “very good.”

However, only 68% of individuals who identified as people of color rated their doctor’s rate of readiness care as either “excellent” or “very good” in the parallel survey.

A combined 31% of responding doctors agreed their level of cultural competency impacts their ability to provide medical treatment either “a lot” or “somewhat.”

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