Cultural competency can help improve health equity
When we think of a visit to the doctor or a mental health specialist, a common experience emerges. In the case of the doctor, questions are asked, knees are tapped, hearts are listened to, and height and weight measured. With a mental health clinician, questions are asked, questions are answered and a meaningful conversation ensues.
However, what may seem like a common experience, in fact, may not be one. The clinical activities may be the same, but based upon one’s ethnicity or cultural background and the provider’s manner of delivering those clinical activities, the understanding and response to them may not be. Culture can refer to “group membership, such as racial, ethnic, linguistic or geographical groups, or as a collection of beliefs, values, customs, ways of thinking, communicating and behaving specific to a group,” according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
As Beacon Health Options recognizes July as Minority Mental Health Awareness Month, we want to highlight culture’s importance to healthcare. It informs concepts of health and healing; how illness and its causes are perceived; behaviors of individuals seeking care; and attitudes towards providers. If those perceptions are not understood by providers, then a healthcare visit — physical or mental — is not as effective as it should be. Cultural competence, therefore, is the ability to interact effectively with people from different cultures.
The importance of communication
Effective communication is critical to cultural competency. Communication techniques can range from translation services to eye contact to asking the right questions and listening appropriately to the answers. Excellent communication is more than a positive experience. According to The Joint Commission, it has been linked to:
- An increase in patient and clinician satisfaction
- Better adherence to treatment recommendations
- Improved health outcomes overall
Excellent communication is particularly important as approximately one-third of people have limited health literacy — the ability to obtain and understand basic health information and services needed to make decisions based on individual needs. In other words, people with limited health literacy are unable to take care of their health well. More specifically, limited health literacy is associated with poor management of chronic diseases, an inability to adhere to medication regimens, increased hospitalizations, and poor health outcomes. As we become more culturally competent, we can communicate information in a way that is appropriate and meaningful to the patient, thus improving health literacy.
Improving cultural awareness
Communication techniques come in many forms, both verbal and nonverbal. Consider the following tips from the health Industry Collaboration Effort for enhancing your communication skills.
Styles of speech: People of different backgrounds will vary in the speed of their speech and willingness to interrupt.
Tip: Listen to the volume and speed of speech as well as the content and modify your own speech to match your patient’s to help that person feel more comfortable.
Eye contact: Eye contact is very much connected to cultural background and life experience.
Tip: While European-based cultures interpret the failure to look someone in the eye as a sign of dishonesty or disrespect, many other cultures consider direct eye contact as rude. Therefore, never force a patient to make eye contact.
Body language: Sociologists say that 80 percent of communication is non-verbal, which can vary by culture, gender and age.
Tip: Follow the patient’s lead on physical distancing and touching. If you need to touch your patient, ask for permission. Also, gestures mean different things to different people so be conservative in your use of them.
Interpreter services: When speaking with someone with limited English proficiency, many of us make common mistakes, such as speaking more loudly or too rapidly. Sometimes, we rely on a family member to interpret when we shouldn’t.
Tip: Be sure to use telephonic or in-person interpretation services. Speak slowly and look at the patient while doing so, not the interpreter. Be sure to give the interpreter time to translate fully.
Reducing health disparities is within reach. The tips provided here are steps we can take today to help build one’s cultural competency to provide more effective, equitable care.