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    Practicing cultural sensitivity in the office


    Patient understanding of what we say is more important than what we actually say. Consider: If patients don’t remember what we relayed to them, have we done an effective job? I used to think that it was my job to educate, and it’s the patient’s job to listen. Then I realized that some of my patients simply didn’t understand my explanations on lid hygiene, glaucoma, specialty contact lenses and all of the other items I had to convey.

    Conveying information to patients and having them remember what occurred is the signature moment that lets people know they had an eye exam. Everything prior to that instant, while important, is almost minor. The patient must be able to remember what was conveyed in a manner that makes sense.

    Related: Be present with your patients

    Not the only way

    A quick and important disclaimer. Park your attitudes and what you think you know at the door. It is impossible to be an expert in cultural relativism, but it is always possible to get smarter. Americans can and do commit actions which could be considered wildly offensive in other cultures. Don’t assume that what you know is the only way to do things. Being open minded goes a very long way to broadening the brain and learning new insights.

    Interestingly, it can be as simple as culture. Americans can be considered by other cultures as very independent and ingrained with a “take-charge” attitude. We like to get to the root of the problem quickly and don’t believe in wasting time with idle chatter. But other cultures and countries favor relationships and devalue independence.1 Indeed, there might not be any growth in a business relationship until a well-worn path of comfort has grown between you and your business contact. This might mean no discussion of your business for days or weeks.

    A simple and sincere greeting and a few moments to ask your patient about her family might be all that is needed to prime the conversation. Being aware of a patient’s manner of dress and realizing it might not be appropriate to shake a woman’s hand can go a long way to showing awareness and consideration.

    Related: 5 ways to start the lens care conversation with patients

    Know your audience

    Sometimes what we don’t know causes our words or actions can lead to cultural miscommunication.

    For example, in some cultures looking a patient in the eyes and addressing him is considered a type of intimidation. Patting someone on the head is considered potentially offensive, or handing something with someone’s left hand can show disrespect. Or using a “thumbs-up” gesture to convey no ocular pathology to the patient after the dilated fundus exam is offensive.

    Even though you meant no harm by your gesture, you may not get a second chance to have a conversation with the patient. In his book Cross-cultural Business Behavior: A Guide for Global Management, Gesteland discusses a number of specific instances and provides the reader opportunities to understand how a communication approach in one country can be wildly successful, but wildly offensive in another.2 Awareness of the audience does matter.

    Gregg Russell, OD, FAAO
    Dr. Russell is completing a Master’s in public health at Salus University and a certificate in global health engagement with the ...


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