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Cultivating Cultural Competency

October 11, 2018

Where do you keep your ketchup? In the fridge, of course, you say. A colleague looks at you in surprise. Don’t you mean the cupboard?

An episode of the popular podcast Reply All posited this question to make a point about cultural diversity. Most Americans keep their ketchup in the fridge, but some cultural pockets store their ketchup at room temperature—a seemingly innocuous difference that makes a bigger splash than you might realize. Imagine retrieving an empty ketchup bottle so you instead grab a nearby substitute. If that bottle is in the refrigerator, you may opt for mayo or mustard. But if it’s in the cupboard, the seasoning closest at hand might be vinegar or pepper.

Culture, which encompasses everything from where you store your food to how often you go to the doctor, has a much larger impact on healthcare relationships than many realize. In a recent MedCity News article, Abner Mason, CEO of ConsejoSano (Spanish for “healthy advice”) explains the importance of understanding different patients’ cultures and languages to help them engage the healthcare system.

While the importance of understanding a patient’s spoken language is almost a given at this point, many often overlook the role of the culture which supports that language. Mason uses the example of different political attitudes between a Cuban resident of Miami and a Mexican resident of Los Angeles. While both populations speak predominantly Spanish, social and political climates have fostered much more trust in institutions than the other, so it won’t do to treat both patients the same. To offer the best healthcare experience, members of the healthcare community must adapt to meet people where they are—not just literally, but also in terms of attitudes toward care, providers, medication, and access. This flexibility begets excellence, but only when healthcare leaders and providers educate themselves on the cultures they serve.

Additionally, cultural awareness in an increasingly diverse environment is no longer simply for urban or costal populations. As ethnic diversity in rural areas continues to rise, so does the need for cultural competency. A 2016 study points to growing Hispanic populations in formerly predominantly white regions of the country, with nine out of ten rural locations experiencing increases in diversity between 1990 and 2010, a trend observed across all of the United States.

What can you do to understand local cultural attitudes toward healthcare? Ask! A root cause analysis (RCA) is often one of the first steps in community health program development and offers one solution for cultivating cultural competency. An RCA helps community health leaders identify the antecedent conditions of a problem and create upstream solutions to health interventions—preventing the problem at its source. In terms of culture, this means marrying an understanding of the cultural community with supplementary data to create proactive solutions. To learn more about the methodologies behind a successful root cause analysis and what they can do for your cultural competency, download the white paper below.

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