Different Culture, Different Approach—Same Quality Care

No two people are alike, and all healthcare workers should be aware of that. Patients come with different ages, conditions, personalities, and attitudes. Yet somehow, of all the types of diversity that caregivers work with, one of the most challenging to embrace is the difference in culture.

What is “culture,” and why is a patient's uniqueness in this regard a big deal when providing care?

Basically, culture is a way of life that a group of people have developed over time. As the group shares the same experiences, they tend to have collective and similar beliefs, habits, traditions, and ways of thinking.

Let’s use a very simple analogy: Compare a patient to a cake. A patient's culture is like the combination of ingredients that make up the cake's base, and can be anything—sponge, fudge, pound—coming in many different flavors, each variety represents a different culture. The icing, topping, decoration, and filling are personal qualities that contribute to their uniqueness as an individual.

For these reasons, cultural differences can manifest strongly in a patient, and caregivers must be sensitive and aware of how patients expect to be treated.

Here’s a simple guide to help you become more culturally sensitive as you deal with patients from different cultures:

1. Do self-reflection.

You need to gain insight into your own biases toward other people’s beliefs and traditions regarding health. Self-reflection is important, so you can still provide quality care even if you do not agree with the patient’s health beliefs and practices.

2. Be aware of common cultural considerations in the healthcare setting, such as:

a. Personal space. Some cultures are stricter when it comes to allowing other people near them, especially if the caregiver is of the opposite sex. Be aware of personal boundaries, according to their terms.

b. Touch. More conservative cultures often do not allow touching of some body parts or even the whole body, especially if the contact is from the opposite sex. Therefore, before doing any care procedure, explain that you will need to access certain body parts and ask permission from the patient before continuing the task.

c. Communication. From your training as a caregiver, you learned that being honest with patients about their health condition is the best way to help them cope. But some cultures do not consider this kind of truth helpful but, rather, unnecessarily distressing and not beneficial.

Always communicate with both the family and the patient so you know how to handle such a situation. If the patient speaks a language you do not understand, inform the supervisor immediately so they can call an interpreter.

d. Eye contact. Not all people consider eye contact to be a sign of sincerity. Some people in some cultures take offense when you look them directly in the eye. Be aware of this cultural difference.

e. Diet and food preferences. Before you prepare meals for patients, ask which foods and drinks are permitted in their diet. Know their likes and dislikes as well as their preferences.

f. Health habits and beliefs. The differences can be profound in the way people from different cultures view health and illness, and how they manage their wellbeing. You may see patients using their traditional healer's medicinal herbs.

Whatever the case may be, matters like these are brought to the healthcare team’s attention because these practices may affect health outcomes. For this reason, a dialogue happens between the team, the patient, and their family. Both parties come up with an agreement on which practices will not put the patient at further risk and can, therefore, be permitted.

3. Respect the patient.

Respecting patients is the foundation of trust in the healthcare setting where cultural differences exist. Learn to acknowledge a patient's needs according to their set of beliefs and practices. Also, never pass judgment. Deliver the same quality of care to every patient, regardless of their cultural practices.

4. Seek information.

Look for resources that help explain the patient’s culture and encourage the patient to tell you their expectations regarding to care. Be proactive in being informed, before a problem arises.

5. Ask for help if needed.

If you feel that you cannot provide the same quality of care because the patient’s needs conflict with your personal beliefs, talk to your supervisor. Your leader can help you either speak to the patient or get another patient assignment.

Part of being a great caregiver is the ability to help patients achieve the best health outcomes, even when they are from a different culture than your own. By being culturally sensitive and efficient, you can enrich your career with learning experiences from circumstances like these.