Understanding Patient Culture to Improve Communication

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Our view of life is rooted in our culture. It’s the driving force behind the way we dress, eat, act and communicate. Every one of us is different—whether we are physicians, patients or healthcare workers.

Understanding our differences is one way to assure that our patients are getting the best care possible through effective communication.  

Getting to Know Your Patients and their Cultural Background

Our patients come from a melting pot of backgrounds and beliefs. As you begin to recognize and understand each patient’s culture, you’ll be able to determine the most effective approach and communication style to explain their disease process and treatment plan. 

Here are a few questions that can help you understand and communicate with your patients across cultural boundaries.

  1. Where were you born and raised? Growing up in a small town in Texas is much different than growing up in New York City and may give you insight into how your patient views their community or world.
  2. How have your cultural traditions impacted your health? Dietary beliefs are a common example. This can include both the type of food consumed as well as the cooking method. Fasting may be an issue for patients who should be drinking water frequently. Other beliefs are rooted in herbal medicine and ancestral or religious traditions. 
  3. Does anybody help you make health decisions? In some cultures, certain family members make decisions for the wellbeing and health of individuals and of the family as a whole. This is not a judgmental question, but rather helpful background information that might need to be considered when creating a treatment plan for your patient.
  4. What are your food preferences? Diet is another major part of one’s culture. We often assume that everyone is eating the “Great American Diet”, but this is not true for all as many cultures have dietary preferences. Understanding food preferences will allow you and your patient to come up with a diet that will not only improve their health but keep them true to their culture and beliefs.

    There are other ways that food affects health. Food abundance and overeating may indicate wealth and status in some cultures, whereas fasting may be a cultural norm to prove faithfulness in others.

Cultural Differences in Expression 

Remember to stay neutral when confronted with how patients express themselves. A person’s culture can play a part in the tone of their voice or body language.

A patient from New Jersey may speak and act differently than someone from Seattle or New Orleans.  Some beliefs surround the appropriateness of eye contact and physical touch. Language, clothing and hairstyles are all rooted in beliefs and culture. 

Remember: Let go of the judgment. No one’s culture is right or wrong, just different. 

Open the Channels of Communication with Your Patients

As you begin to look at your patients’ culture and background you’ll get a better understanding of ways you can communicate good health skills and life changes within their unique culture. 

This will lead to a more meaningful conversation, better patient adherence and an overall more satisfying patient experience. Learn more at https://thinkculturalhealth.hhs.gov/

Raenali Publications® is a leading provider of innovative, physician-directed patient education in the field of nephrology.

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