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When Healthcare and Culture Coexist

Culture and diversity remain hot topics in today’s society, especially with the rise in culturally-motivated crimes and conflicts. Religion, language, values, place of origin, traditions — these are the ingredients that define our way of life, and being a good person means respecting them. But in a healthcare setting where people often find themselves in a vulnerable state, culture can mean so much more.

Having cultural awareness is not just about being polite or open-minded. For CNAs who often have the most touch time with patients, it’s about letting go of assumptions and presumptions based on race or ethnicity, and having the foresight to identify critical points that may affect the overall quality of care.

When care and culture clash

For example, consider a Muslim patient who’s been ordered to remain on bed rest after surgery due to low blood pressure. His family insists that he gets out of bed to kneel and pray five times a day, despite the danger to his well-being.

What about an elderly Chinese man with severe third and fourth degree burns who refuses a pain shot before changing his dressings? In keeping with Chinese etiquette where it is impolite to accept anything offered the first time, he declines intervention in spite of his agony.

Having cultural competence

Culturally appropriate care does not mean stereotyping. While you can’t assume that all patients of the same culture have the same needs, you can learn about your patients as individuals and adapt your care accordingly. The patient who seems uncooperative may not fully comprehend the treatment options being discussed or understand what’s at stake. Or maybe a patient is resistant to the care plan simply because you’re asking them to do something that’s considered “taboo” in their culture.

Bottom line: Recognizing diversity and acting on it when treating people of different cultures is key to providing the best possible care, and ultimately, to saving someone’s life. 

Caring across cultures

As an effective care provider, you need to recognize and adapt to the cultural differences that can affect behaviors and responses. The following five steps can help ensure that you’re providing culturally competent care:

  1. Identify your own biases
    By practicing self-awareness, you’ll better recognize cultural differences, and how you can best embrace them to provide comprehensive care. Introspection will give you an understanding of how your perceptions impact others.
  2. Study different cultures
    Keep in mind that learning never ends, and developing cultural awareness and sensitivity is vital to your role as a healthcare provider. Sharing this added interest in your patients can endear you to them and actually make your job easier.
  3. Learn patient preferences
    From diet to pain management, ask your patients about their likes and dislikes. Your willingness to get to know them is a sign of respect. It can help put them at ease, build trust, and greatly influence their experience in your care.
  4. Talk to families
    Use them as a resource to find out more about their culture and how it may impact the individual needs of the patient. Actively including them can help you gain allies and enlist a team approach when culture and care cross paths.
  5. Draw from the experiences of other staff
    Ask your colleagues what they have learned about working with other cultures. They may have valuable insight that relates to your patients and what is common at a given facility, especially one you are new to working at.

And when in doubt, the best way to provide care to patients of diverse cultures is to simply ask. Most people do not expect others to know everything about their culture, religion or background, but will appreciate you making a genuine effort to help make their care and culture coexist.

Fostering culturally conscious care

When you take a moment to learn more about a patient’s culture, you’re investing your own valuable time to learn more about them. The simple acts of asking questions and listening show patients you respect their values and beliefs. And not only does going that extra mile build cultural sensitivity, it lets patients know you care.

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