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Medicine is the ultimate caring profession. Its mission is to comfort the sick, heal the wounded, and care for the afflicted. For far too long, however, society’s most vulnerable and marginalized populations have been underserved by the medical profession as well.

In an increasingly diverse world, though, the ability to provide culturally competent care isn’t just a moral imperative, it’s also sound business practice. Indeed, for healthcare systems and private practices alike, empathic and inclusive care is paramount to reputation management.

What is Culturally Competent Care?

Culturally competent care operates according to two basic principles. The first is the recognition that health beliefs and behaviors are not universal. Rather, they are strongly influenced by culture and life experience.

A culturally-informed healthcare provider seeks to understand, respect, and, when possible, accommodate the patient’s culture and its relationship to the patient’s perspective on and practices surrounding health and wellness.

This is particularly important when a care provider is attempting to serve patients with a history of trauma. A culturally competent practitioner will seek to understand, respect, and incorporate the patient’s cultural and personal beliefs and values in the recovery process.

Second, culturally competent care recognizes and seeks to redress the very real healthcare disparities that vulnerable patient populations continue to experience today. This includes barriers to healthcare based on socioeconomic factors as well as implicit and explicit biases toward racial and ethnic minorities, members of the LGBTQ community, persons with disabilities, the elderly, and other marginalized communities.

Implementing Culturally Competent Care

In addition to understanding, empathizing with, and accommodating diversity in health beliefs and practices, it is also imperative for culturally competent practitioners to recognize the unique risks and obstacles that their patients are likely to face.

For example, mortality rates among pregnant black women are disproportionately high, reaching crisis levels in recent decades. A culturally-informed clinician will be able to identify the unique risks that black mothers face and will adjust their care practices accordingly. This would include, for example, early, consistent, and highly proactive prenatal care.

Similarly, clinicians working in the Pacific Northwest and Oceania are likely to serve a substantial ethnic Hawaiian patient population. This is relevant because the substantial health disparities experienced by Hawaiians and Pacific Islanders are increasingly being recognized within the medical community. Understanding the nature of these disparities is fundamental to providing culturally competent care.

The effective care provider, for example, will identify this population’s elevated risk not only for developing Type II diabetes but also for being inadequately treated for this condition. Moreover, an informed caregiver recognizes that extant medical research has been based largely on white male research subjects, with minority communities, including Hawaiian ethnic groups, often profoundly underrepresented in medical studies. This means that medical data and standard treatment protocols may be less relevant for the treatment of racial and ethnic minority populations.

Cultural Competent Care and Reputation Management

Whether you own private practice or you are a member of a larger medical group, you are likely all too aware of the fierce competition that exists between practices. One of the most powerful weapons in your arsenal for attracting and retaining patients is your reputation.

Now more than ever, patients are doing their research, studying up on prospective healthcare providers before committing their health or the well-being of someone they love into the hands of a veritable stranger. This is why a vast majority of patients turn to online reviews before choosing a healthcare provider.

Of those who routinely research the reputation of the clinician or group, they’re considering patronizing, nearly 100% report that they would not choose a healthcare provider with bad online ratings or reviews.

This means that the success of your practice is often predicated on your ability to make your patients feel understood, respected, and extremely well cared for. Because culturally competent care is deeply rooted in this ethos of understanding and respect, it may well be one of the most important factors in promoting overall patient satisfaction. After all, how can we expect patients to feel well-served if they do not feel seen, known, or valued by their clinician?

The Takeaway

Despite having the wealthiest and most advanced healthcare system in the world, the United States continues to be plagued by significant health disparities. Historically marginalized patient populations, including racial and ethnic minorities, members of the LGBTQ community, the elderly, and the disabled continue to be woefully underserved by the healthcare system. This includes the persistence of bias both in medical research and in health care practice. However, culturally competent care may well be the key to overcoming these inequities while at the same time enhancing the reputation of physicians and groups that practice it. Culturally-informed care pertains to the recognition and accommodation of the impact of cultural differences on health beliefs and behaviors. It also involves the understanding and remediation of long-standing and life-threatening barriers to consistent, high-quality healthcare for vulnerable patient populations.