Healthcare is essential for everyone. No one goes through life without needing to see a doctor at some point. And yet, not everyone receives equally good care when they are sick or injured.

This isn’t usually intentional. Most healthcare workers are extremely compassionate and dedicated to providing their patients with the best possible care. Good intentions aren’t enough, though. We all have biases and knowledge gaps that can lead to miscommunications or worse.

To ensure that every patient receives quality healthcare, especially in a country as diverse as the United States, cultural awareness and competence are key for those working in the medical field. Let’s take a look at why cultural awareness is so important and some of the challenges involved in achieving it.

Cultural Awareness in Healthcare

Awareness is key to changing behavior. Many people don’t realize just how much our cultural beliefs shape our daily lives and expectations. While nurses and doctors are just trying to do their jobs, they may not realize that other cultural customs and beliefs shape their patients’ experiences within the healthcare system.

There are many examples of cultural clashes between patients and healthcare providers. In some cultures, it’s important to stay with loved ones when they are ill, regardless of visiting hours. Some religions and cultures have special dietary needs or beliefs about certain procedures. If a healthcare worker makes assumptions, it could risk the patient’s outcome or damage their trust in their doctors and nurses.

Anyone who works in healthcare needs to examine their own cultural beliefs and develop cultural awareness. They need to be willing to ask respectful questions and establish communication before moving forward with treatment. Making sure patients feel safe and opening the channels of communication goes a long way toward better outcomes.

Challenges to Culturally Competent Healthcare

Delivering culturally competent healthcare seems simple. But there are actually many challenges that make it the exception, rather than the standard.

First, many healthcare providers simply don’t have the cultural awareness needed to provide culturally competent healthcare. They may not see the need to examine their own biases or they simply might not be aware that they need to. Even those who do take the time to think about their biases may have trouble correcting them, leading to issues like misdiagnosis, minimizing patients’ concerns, and lack of trust between the patient and their healthcare providers.

There are also practical and bureaucratic factors in play. If patients’ families want to visit outside designated visiting hours, for instance, a nurse may be placed in a tough position. Hospital policies often conflict with cultural needs and can cause friction.

Communication, resource availability, and health literacy challenges are also common. There may be a language barrier or the patient may not have access to the tools they need to take care of their health properly. Healthcare providers must take extra care to ensure that every patient feels heard and is set up for success.

The Benefits of Culturally Sensitive Care 

Discrimination, whether intentional or not, shouldn’t have any place in the healthcare system. As the United States continues to become more diverse, culturally sensitive care is an issue that every health organization needs to take seriously. Not only is it the right thing to do, but it also offers many benefits.

Obviously, patients benefit. A healthcare provider who is making an effort to understand cultural factors affecting their patients’ experiences will be able to achieve better outcomes overall. Patients feel safer, more secure, and respected when their healthcare team is trying to understand their needs, making them more likely to open up to their doctors and follow instructions or advice.

Public health also benefits from culturally sensitive care. Vulnerable communities are often understandably wary of healthcare institutions and doctors because people have had bad experiences and faced discrimination. By implementing culturally competent care, trust in the healthcare system can increase within these communities and lead to better health, greater equity, and social benefits.

Providing culturally sensitive care also saves hospitals and healthcare organizations money. They are less likely to be targeted by malpractice lawsuits due to errors and miscommunications. It can also streamline healthcare delivery, making it more efficient and reducing costs.

While some organizations may balk at prioritizing culturally competent healthcare, it should be at the top of their to-do list. With proper training and some practice, every healthcare worker can make a difference in the lives of people who have varying health and cultural needs.

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