Cultural competency is a set of beliefs, policies, systems, and practices that come together to make a health care organization effective in treating patients from any culture or background. On any given day, a health care facility may see patients who only speak Russian, Mandarin, Spanish, French, etc. These differences in language may reflect a background that is unfamiliar with how health systems work in the United States.
The inability of health care organizations to handle patients from various backgrounds has led to disparities in health outcomes in the melting pot that is the United States. With the population growth of racial and ethnic minorities throughout the United States, cultural competency is also becoming increasingly important for treatment.
How Does Culture Influence Health Care?
How one is raised and where they are raised, the systems they are used to, can have a major impact on their health care expectations. Culture can influence:
- The behaviors of those seeking health care and their attitudes toward providers.
- Healing, wellness, and health belief systems.
- The limited scope through which health care practitioner sees the world, which can compromise the treatment of people from other cultures.
- How disease, illness, and their causes are perceived.
The Office of Minority Health, a division of the Department of Health and Human Services, recognizes these problems. That is why they have developed National CLAS Standards to “to inform, guide, and facilitate required and recommended practices related to culturally and linguistically appropriate health services (CLAS).”
There are fifteen standards entrenched within the National CLAS Standards. The Principal Standard states, “Provide effective, equitable, understandable, and respectful quality care and services that are responsive to diverse cultural health beliefs and practices, preferred languages, health literacy, and other communication needs.”
The other fourteen CLAS standards deal with Governance, Leadership, and Workforce (Standards 2-4); Communication and Language Assistance (Standards 5-8); and Engagement, Continuous Improvement, and Accountability (Standards 9-15). The Office of Minority Health provides a blueprint for any health care organization to institute these standards.
What Can Individuals Do?
It is clear that health care organizations that take the initiative to learn about how better to serve other cultures have better health care outcomes. But, how does an individual convince health care organizations to adopt the National CLAS standards and therefore provide better service to minorities and other groups?
There are a number of ways families, communities, and youth can help build cultural competency in health care organizations and elsewhere. By advocating for themselves, other families, or communities of diverse backgrounds; individuals and groups can raise awareness of different cultures and their needs.
As it is commonly claimed, money makes the world go round. So, building and sustaining a demand for culturally competent services will force the marketplace to adapt. Individuals can also offer to be sources of knowledge and support for various cultures and languages as different organizations change to meet the demands for cultural competency.
Individuals can also help out by taking the initiative to learn about language access rights, ethnic and racial health disparities, participatory action research, health literacy, cross-cultural communication, and a culture’s impact on health. By creating partnerships with policymakers, providers, and other families, one can build trust and spread cultural knowledge and thus creating advocates.
Another method for spreading cultural influence is by participating in governing boards or advisory groups. One can jump right in on the ground floor and work as a consultant or staff for programs promoting cultural competency.
As one can see, there are a variety of ways to help improve cultural competency in health care organizations. With the government providing a framework, it is only a matter of time before there is equitable health care access for all cultures and races. The importance of this can be measured in the number of lives saved.