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Cultural Competency: What It Is and Why It’s Needed in Healthcare

Healthcare is better than ever, in many ways. Improvements in research and technology mean that providers and systems have the ability to screen and treat people early and better. This means that many people can 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 the innovation and don’t receive equal access to care.

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Implicit Bias and Health Disparities

This gap in care is down to bias blind spots—sometimes intentional and sometimes implicit or unconscious bias—that leaves out wide 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 many populations are disproportionately burdened by chronic illnesses and other health concerns.

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.

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

Source: KFF

As a healthcare leader, it’s impossible to ignore figures like these.

That’s why it’s imperative for agencies to not only understand health disparities but also develop cultural competence among your team.

What Is Cultural Competence?

For your staff and volunteers, cultural competency is being able to help the people in your community have better access to appropriate healthcare and to have their best possible health. Also it means to do so while working within the context of your clients’ cultural beliefs, behaviors, and needs.

Cultural competency is an essential element that bridges the people in your community and the healthcare system.

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

  • 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
  • Recognizing 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. You must be fully aware of your organization in order for that to extend to your client community.

Providing Cultural Competency Training

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

Training is a good place to start. Ideally, you’ll have ongoing learning efforts that cover a variety of topics.

Look for or create training programs that cover areas such as …

Health disparities and social determinants of health: Understanding how socioeconomic and sociocultural factors effect clients, patients, and providers.

Implicit bias training for healthcare providers: Explicit bias is obvious. For example, overt racism and prejudice. It’s harmful, but easier to spot. Unconscious bias is more insidious and pervasive, because people don’t recognize it. Training in this topic can help stamp out harmful stereotypes. Implicit bias training is mandatory in many states.

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

Eliminating language barriers: Working with medical interpreters, providing language proficiency courses or working with bilingual staff.

Communication skills: Building on language skills to include wider ways of communication among all facets of the healthcare system, including patient, provider, insurance, and administration.

Note that one short course is just a beginning. 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. It improves health outcomes, builds community relations, and supports a stronger internal culture.

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