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The United States of America is one of the most diverse nations in the world with a population of approximately 326 million. It is home to people from many different ethnic, racial, religious and cultural backgrounds. It is crucial that we approach healthcare from a culturally competent standpoint, and avoid applying a blanket standard to the way we treat medical patients. Cultural competency refers to the “the ongoing capacity of healthcare systems, organizations, and professionals to provide for diverse patient populations high quality care that is safe, patient and family-centered, evidence-based and equitable” (Dreachslin, Gilbert, & Malone, 2013, p.
4). Medical professionals have a duty to their patients to consider all of their individual needs and preferences when evaluating, testing, and diagnosing them. It’s imperative that healthcare providers apply sensitivity and understanding to the different values, beliefs, behaviors, and rituals they will come across when treating people from diverse backgrounds. Without the implementation of cultural competence, providing effective quality care is less achievable and can result in low patient satisfaction and outcomes.
“Respect is at the heart of cultural competence-patients who feel their healthcare providers respect their beliefs, customs, values, language, and traditions are more likely to communicate freely and honestly, which can, in turn, reduce disparities in healthcare and improve patient outcomes” (Medcom, 2018).
The National Institutes of Health defines healthcare disparities as “differences in the incidence, prevalence, mortality, and burden of diseases and other health conditions that exist among several populations in the United States” (Dreachslin, Gilbert, & Malone, 2013, p. 20). Ineffective communication is one of the leading factors in healthcare disparities, especially when it comes to language barriers.
Another contributing factor is the lack of diversity in the healthcare workforce. According to an article released by Monster.com, “African Americans, Hispanics/Latinos and American Indians together represent more than one-fourth of the US population, they comprise less than 9 percent of nurses, 6 percent of physicians and 5 percent of dentists” (Woog, 2018). With such a low percentage of minorities occupying these roles in the medical field, there is a lack of quality care and availability to medical services for these populations.
There are seven dimensions of diversity that must be considered; each can play a substantial role in a patient’s expectations from their healthcare provider. Immutable dimensions of diversity include race and ethnicity, gender, and sexual orientation. Immutable simple refers to the fact that they are typically unchanging over time. The “crosscutting” dimensions of diversity include: age, language, socioeconomic status, and religion. These four dimensions can change overtime and create a broader range of diversity within the first three dimensions. All seven dimensions can affect an individual’s behavior and expectations. It is important to remain unbiased when dealing with and approaching healthcare methods and treatments. It does not benefit the provider or patient when assumptions are made based on any of the seven dimensions of diversity.
Like many workplace environments, unconscious bias can exist in the medical workforce. “Research suggests that we instinctively categorize people and things using easily observed criteria such as age, weight, skin color, and gender. But we also classify people according to educational level, disability, sexuality, accent, social status, and job title, automatically assigning presumed traits to anyone we subconsciously put in those groups” (Mindtools, 2018). This can have an extremely negative impact on the quality of care we give individuals who are different from us, so it’s important to avoid applying biases at all costs. An effective way of doing this is by being honest with yourself and becoming fully aware of your own biases. The choices you make when you are feeling tired or stressed can trigger certain biases, so being mindful when you are under these conditions is essential. Also, making an effort to focus on people as individuals can help to eliminate biases. It’s important that you, as a healthcare provider, make cultural competence a priority and a personal value instead of viewing it as just a legal or organizational standard.
Cultural factors can influence an individual’s health, behavior, and preferences; for instance, some cultures might eat more of a specific food that can have an effect on certain body functions or organs. It’s crucial to have background knowledge of the roles different nutritional sources play on our bodies. Culture can affect health care seeking behaviors as well. Some cultures may seek help from a medical care provider as a last resort. There are cultures that prefer alternative forms of medicine, and it is beneficial to be aware of the affects that those kinds of medicine and treatments can have on someone. Culture can also have an effect on a patient’s personal preferences; for example, we often find that in Muslim culture, male patients prefer treatment from male physicians and females from female physicians. It is necessary for a healthcare provider to be willing to accommodate their patient’s personal preferences; this will result in the patient feeling more comfortable and satisfied with their quality of care.
In summary, medical practitioners have a great responsibility to their patients to uphold a standard of respectful, sensitive, empathetic, and comprehensive care. Consider the seven dimensions of diversity and be able to identify other factors that impact health and healthcare disparities, such as access, historical, political, environmental, and institutional. “Eliminating racial and ethnic disparities in health care is a complex, multifactor process. It is recognized that one cornerstone of this is assuring that medical education supports the development of culturally competent physicians” (AAMC, 2005). If we work hard to implement cultural competence in the way we provide care for individuals from diverse backgrounds, patient satisfaction will increase and outcomes will continue to improve.
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