Cultural competence in healthcare

What Is Cultural Competence and Why It’s Needed in Healthcare

Healthcare is better than ever in many ways. Thanks to improvements in research and technology, providers and systems can screen and treat people early and better. This helps many people avoid health problems that could disrupt their lives or cause early death. But the ability to provide this kind of care is not the same as actually providing it. Too often, minority groups are left out of innovation and don’t receive equal access to care.

Implicit Bias and Health Disparities

This gap in care is down to bias blind spots, whether intentional or implicit/unconscious, which leave out vast swaths of the population.

People sometimes have vastly different healthcare experiences because of their race/ethnicity, income, geographic location, sexual preference, or other characteristics. These health disparities mean that chronic illnesses and other health concerns disproportionately burden many populations.

More African Americans and Latinos, compared to whites, have at least one of seven chronic conditions: asthma, cancer, heart disease, diabetes, high blood pressure, obesity, or anxiety/ depression.

Some of this is because they don’t get treated quickly or at all, compared to white populations. In essence, cultural competence means understanding how race plays a part in access to health care and addressing these differences.

Cultural competence: Share of Nonelderly Adults Who Did Not Receive Care or Delayed Care in the Past Year by Race/Ethnicity, 2018

Source: KFF

Healthcare leaders can’t ignore figures like these. That’s why it’s imperative for agencies to understand health disparities but also develop cultural competence among your team.

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What Is Cultural Competence?

The American Psychological Association defines cultural competence as “the ability to understand, appreciate and interact with people from cultures or belief systems different from one’s own.

In short, cultural competency means being able to help the people in your community have better access to appropriate healthcare and their best possible health. It also means working within the context of your clients’ cultural beliefs, behaviors, and needs. So cultural competency is an essential element that bridges the people in your community and the healthcare system.

In terms of services and care, this might look like some of the following:

  • Providing interpreters when necessary
  • Addressing gaps in health literacy
  • Recruiting and training a culturally diverse team
  • Setting up clinics and providers to offer transgender care
  • Providing training to all staff in cultural awareness, knowledge, and skills
  • Collaborating with traditional healers
  • Offering specialized training on LGBTQ+ health issues
  • Hiring and training community health workers
  • And finally, rrecognizing and applying culture-specific attitudes in health promotion

Note that these practices are both inward-facing and outward-facing for healthcare agencies. Yes, it’s about having a diverse team, but it’s also about knowing how to talk to a diverse community. So you must be fully aware of your organization for that to extend to your client community.

Providing Cultural Competence Training

To create a workplace with cultural competence, you’ll need to invest in change, including continued learning, listening, and evolving because health professionals need to learn how to deliver services with awareness and sensitivity.

The first step is to invest in ongoing training covering various topics. To start, look for or create training programs that cover areas such as:

Health disparities and social determinants of health. Develop a thorough understanding of the impact of socioeconomic and sociocultural factors on clients, patients, and providers.

Implicit bias training for healthcare providers. While explicit bias is obvious, implicit bias is not. For example, overt racism and prejudice are clear. It’s harmful but easier to spot. Unconscious bias is more insidious and pervasive because people don’t recognize it. So implicit bias training can address harmful stereotypes. In fact, implicit bias training is mandatory in many states.

Health literacy. Improving the understanding of health information in a context that makes sense for the patient and client.

Eliminating language barriers. In essence, working with medical interpreters, providing language proficiency courses, or working with bilingual staff.

Communication skills. Developing language skills to include wider ways of communication in the healthcare system, including patient, provider, insurance, and administration, so patients navigate the system more effectively.

However, it’s worth noting that one short course is just the beginning and not a one-and-done thing. Instead, cultural competence in healthcare is a process and a way of operating. It pays off to expand your institution’s capacity in cultural competency and diversity because it improves health outcomes, builds community relations, and supports a stronger internal culture.

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