Check the news headlines and you can’t avoid seeing stories – usually negative – that essentially involve cultural clashes: wars, immigration debates, police-involved shootings, terrorism, the list goes on. In healthcare, there are similar clashes. A child taken from its parents because the parents disagree with doctors about cancer treatment, a patient who chooses alternative remedies rather than conventional treatments, even healthcare affordability and accessibility; all involve cultural issues.
Cultural awareness is an acceptance and understanding of the differences, especially differences in attitudes and values, between people from diverse backgrounds. This awareness is essential across the spectrum of human interactions, from international diplomacy to daily interactions with our neighbors. The ability to respond respectfully and effectively to people of all backgrounds and cultures is Cultural Competence.
Cultural competence is critical for therapists who must be able to meet the health care needs of diverse patients. Those therapists can achieve better health outcomes for their patients by developing treatment plans that are appropriate for the patients’ individual cultural factors.
You might think that only therapists who work in inner-city clinics or urban schools would have to be culturally aware. After all nursing homes, especially in rural areas, generally draw patients from the local community, which may on the surface seem to be a fairly homogeneous group. But even residents of small communities will have varying levels of education, economic resources and family involvement.
America’s ever-increasing diversity will require that therapists in every community must be willing to learn about the effect of cultural factors on health care delivery. Does this mean that every therapist must be multilingual or must be an expert in sociology? Of course not. But a therapist must be aware of the cultural environments in the communities he or she serves. Learning and awareness of cultural factors will naturally follow.
Remember these 3 Rs:
1. RECOGNIZE cultural factors that are obvious or not so obvious…do this without making assumptions.
2. RESPECT cultural differences, without judgment. Don’t consider these differences to be problems, or something to be fixed.
3. RESPOND with a therapy plan that is appropriate to the person, taking into account any cultural factors which may impact that plan.
But first and foremost, the therapist is treating a person, an individual who is more than just the face of an ethnic background or national origin, more than just an education or labor statistic. This is a person who to some degree is seeking help returning to a comfortable level of functioning.