The Need for Cultural Competence in Healthcare

In order to meet the needs of patients, healthcare providers will need to promote cultural competency.

Certain types of cultural barriers in healthcare have the power to negatively impact outcomes and lead to expensive consequences for health systems. Language barriers, for example, can have devastating effects, as they did when a two-year-old Latina girl had two serious injuries within two months – one of which caused her collarbone to fracture.

According to Smithsonian, the girl’s mother told the attending resident “Se pegó, se pegó,” which sounded like “she was hit.” The resident understood the phrase as though the girl was physically struck by someone. That interpretation combined with the girl’s recent medical history led to her and her brother being taken away from their mother for several days due to suspected child abuse.

Another story involves a high school teenager collapsing during a sporting event. He and his girlfriend spoke little English, and the girl kept repeating the word “intoxicado.” The boy received treatment for drug abuse and spent 48 hours in a coma. However, while “intoxicado” can mean “intoxicated,” it can also refer to a “sick to the stomach” feeling, a symptom of a brain aneurysm. That misunderstanding resulted in a $71 million malpractice lawsuit.

The previous examples illustrate how language barriers can prevent healthcare practitioners from the getting information they need. Data from the U.S. Census Bureau indicates that 8.5% of the population speaks English “less than very well.” In areas with the greatest need for language services, about 36% of hospitals lack those systems, according to a study in Health Affairs.

Language barriers are just one of several issues that prevent healthcare professionals from delivering quality care. To meet patients’ needs, healthcare providers need to promote cultural competency.

What is Cultural Competency? How Does it Relate to Healthcare?

Cultural competency refers to the ability to interact with people across cultures. When used in healthcare, the term focuses on being able to care for patients with diverse values, beliefs, and behaviors. Healthcare delivery needs to be tailored to patients’ social, cultural, and linguistic needs, according to a report from Health Research & Educational Trust, the not-for-profit research and educational affiliate of the American Hospital Association.

“A key component to new care delivery models, such as patient-centered medical homes and accountable care organizations, is the ability to engage and educate patients about their health status,” the report added. “While doing this is challenging with all patients, for diverse patient populations it can be even more difficult due to language barriers, health literacy gap, and cultural differences in communication styles.”

Cultural competency in healthcare can overcome health disparities such as language barriers, cultural beliefs and practices, unconscious and conscious medical bias, variations in care access and quality, and low health literacy, according to the global health service company Cigna. The organization noted that racial and ethnic minorities currently comprise around a third of the U.S. population. By 2055, minorities are expected to become the majority.

The Importance of Cultural Competence in Healthcare

Culturally competent care benefits the organization, patients, and the community, according to Health Research & Educational Trust. “Organizations that are culturally competent have improved health outcomes, increased respect and mutual understanding from patients, and increased participation from the local community,” the report said.

It outlined three primary benefit areas of becoming a culturally competent healthcare organization.

  • Business benefits include enhancing the efficiency of care services, increasing the market share of the organization, decreasing barriers that slow progress, helping to meet legal and regulatory guidelines, and incorporating different perspectives, ideas, and strategies into the decision-making progress.
  • Health benefits include reducing care disparities in patient population, enhancing preventive care, improving collection of patient data, and reducing the number of medical errors, treatments, and medical visits.
  • Social benefits include increasing trust, promoting community member inclusion, involving the community in health issues, assisting patients and families in their care, promoting patient and family health responsibility, and increasing mutual respect and understanding for patients and the organization.

How to Become a Culturally Competent Practice

Healthcare providers and employers can take several steps toward becoming culturally competent.

Consulting the National Culturally and Linguistically Appropriate Services (CLAS) Standards is a good starting point for healthcare organizations. The 15 action steps of the National CLAS Standards aim to advance health equity, improve quality, and eliminate healthcare disparities.

Another strong resource comes from Health Research & Educational Trust and the Institute for Diversity in Health Management. The guide explores how to enhance cultural competency in healthcare, and it presented seven tasks hospital leaders can focus on. Self-assessment questions are provided to go along with the seven recommendations that are provided here.

  1. Collect race, ethnicity, and language preference (REAL) data.
  2. Identify and report disparities.
  3. Provide culturally and linguistically competent care.
  4. Develop culturally competent disease management programs.
  5. Increase diversity and minority workforce pipelines.
  6. Involve the community.
  7. Make cultural competency an institutional priority.

From an employer perspective, expanding staff to include experts in cultural competency and diversity can help the institution become stronger in this area, according to Cigna. The institution can provide materials and benefits information that is culturally competent, to help staff members enhance their knowledge in the field. Other ideas include obtaining feedback from diverse groups of employees about their personal experiences in healthcare and having multicultural staff representatives support onsite health services, like health fairs and open enrollment.

Achieving cultural competence in healthcare starts at a system level. You can help healthcare organizations cater to the needs of patients with diverse values, beliefs, and behaviors by earning your healthcare administration and public health degree online. This degree will help you develop the skills and knowledge you’ll need to work in non-clinical settings. In a convenient online format, you’ll learn from dedicated professors who have years of experience in their fields.

By earning your degree online through Husson University, you’ll also have the opportunity to earn a traditional MBA or a specialized MBA in healthcare management with only one additional year of study. Over 95% of Husson graduates are employed or in graduate school within one year of graduation.