Cultural competence is the ability of health organizations and practitioners to recognize the cultural beliefs, values, attitudes, traditions, language preferences, and health practices of diverse populations and to apply that knowledge to produce a positive health outcome.
Often when people are first learning about cultural competence, they think their only job is to find out about the holidays, customs, religion, food, etc. of the specific populations with which they are working. This is very important information, but it’s NOT the only component of cultural competence, and may not be the most important part.
Cultural competence has three components:
- Managing Our Prejudices
- Communicating Across Cultures
- Understanding Specific Populations
A good place to start on the journey to become culturally competent is to look within. Everyone experiences automatic thoughts and feeling about others based on race, ethnicity, accent, clothing, body type, etc. When you have an immediate reaction to someone, it’s often because that person reminds you of someone you have known in the past, someone you’ve seen on TV, someone your mother told you about. Your reaction may have nothing to do with the individual sitting in front of you. Many people may unconsciously generalize, thinking that “Those people are all alike”. Eliminating such thoughts and feelings may be impossible, but as responsible human beings, we can learn to manage our prejudices so that they do not affect the way we treat others.
The second kind of cultural competence is about listening and speaking effectively –communicating across cultures. This kind of cultural competence has a goal – the two people will exchange information they need from one another. A culturally competent person will ask himself, “What message do I need to convey? What information do I need from the other person? What words should I use? What words might be considered offensive? How do I make the other person comfortable to ask questions, or to tell me he has a different point of view?”
Managing our prejudices and communicating across cultures do not require any special knowledge of the particular culture one is dealing with. Without knowing anything about the other person’s culture, one can be culturally competent by asking open questions, managing one’s prejudices, showing respect, and speaking in a way that does not presume that the other person shares one’s own values or experiences. Only the last component of cultural competence, understanding specific populations, requires prior knowledge about particular cultural groups. Having specific knowledge about different cultures is essential for cultural competence but it has a pitfall. It can lead to stereotyping. Most individuals are similar to his or her racial or ethnic group in some ways and completely different from the group in other ways. Factors like a person’s level of education, whether they grew up in a rural area or the city, their income level, whether they have traveled, and the values instilled in them by their parents will make them similar to or different from others in their racial or ethnic groups.
US Department of Health and Human Services. 2001. National Standards for Culturally and Linguistically Appropriate Services in Health care. Washington, D.C.: Office of Minority Health
For more information, click to open these documents:
- Introduction to Cultural Competence in Health Care
- Working with a Multicultural Staff
- The Role of Non-Clinical Personnel
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