Practicing cultural sensitivity in the office
Galanti, author of Caring for Patients from Different Cultures, calls it cultural competence. The skill of simply being empathetic affords the enlightened reader potential insight into the reasons why the other party might behave the way he does.3
Consider questions such as:
• Why won’t this patient look me in the eye?
• Why did they not extend a hand when I went in for a handshake?
• Why did she look uncomfortable when I asked her why she was here today?
Think of cultural competence as a decoder ring which allows you to see and hear behavior in a manner that explains. This gives you an opportunity to alter your communication style and improve your chances of being heard the first time.
Cultural sensitivity is not a new “politically correct” device in the patient care spectrum. Indeed, the military recognized its important some time ago and spends an enormous amount of time and money for deploying soldiers to receive thoughtful training on the theater in which they are to be deployed, including basic phrases for communication, references to hand gestures, and knowledge about the cultural, gender, age, and socioeconomic structures of a particular location.4
There’s good reason to do this. Being in a foreign land, it would be important to know that a “thumbs-up” might be a cause for conflict.
Some might say, “A foreign patient is here in the United States, and he should get with the program to adopt our cultural quirks.” Personally, I think this is a short-sighted approach and does nothing for improving one’s ability to show respect and cultural awareness. Being insensitive to age, socioeconomic status, race, or culture can decrease your chances of making a difference in your patient’s life and can incredibly damage your reputation in a pool of patients.5
Unseen, nonverbal communication cues can rapidly bridge a divide and provide a course for effective communication. The culturally sensitive person is showing respect and politeness and is making a sincere effort to extend the hand of compassion. It will go a long way.
Being just a little more aware is a good thing. While it might seem that you are profiling your patients, you are simply trying to improve your chances of talking effectively with them. That’s a good thing, too. Keep doing it, and you’ll continue to improve. It will make the world a smaller place and you a better doctor.
1. Berger JT. Culture and ethnicity in clinical are. Arch Intern Med. 1998 Oct 26;158(19):2085-90.
2. Gesteland RR. Cross-Cultural Business Behavior: A Guide for Global Management. Oslo: Copenhagen Business School Press DK. 2012. Print.
3. Galanti GA. Caring for Patients from Different Cultures. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press. 2013. Print.
4. McFate M. The Military Utility of Understanding Adversary Culture. Office of Naval Research, Arlington, VA. 2005. Print.
5. Cooper-Patrick L, Gallo JJ, Gonzales JJ, Vu HT, Powe NR, Nelson C, Ford DE. Race, gender, and partnership in the patient-physician relationship. JAMA. 1999;282(6):583-589.