How Cultural Respect Drives Better Health Care

Studies show it can even help patients stick to their treatment regimens.

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Cultural sensitivity and cultural responsiveness are big terms in many service industries. For businesses, CEOs can use cultural sensitivity to improve employee morale and relationships. In education, teachers can teach using culturally responsive curriculum. In health care, doctors and nurses can use cultural sensitivity to improve engagement from their patients.

When it comes to culturally sensitive health care, doctors cannot use a one-size-fits-all approach to treating their patients. That's especially true when it comes to providing lifestyle advice. 

“If some particular population eats a certain way, … just telling them, 'Oh, you know, you need to eat a Mediterranean diet,' isn't gonna cut it, right?” asks Sanjai Sinha, MD, internist at Weill Cornell Medicine.  “What if they don't have access to the food that's in a Mediterranean diet because they live in areas where there's not a lot of fresh groceries?”

Instead, a doctor may need to meet the patient where they are. This may include asking what some of their favorite meals are, where they shop, and how much time they have to prepare and eat meals. Then, they can discuss ways to improve the patient’s diet that are within reason.

Improving Health Outcomes

Cultural sensitivity isn’t just about being respectful: It’s effective. A 2011 study by researchers at the University of Florida surveyed low-income patients and how they viewed their doctors. The patients who perceived more cultural sensitivity from their doctors were more likely to adhere to their treatment recommendations. 

It’s about “coming to a place where you can at least respect their culture, listen to what they have to say, and not just disengage and get frustrated,” says Dr. Sinha. “The fact that you've made that effort, most patients really are grateful for it, and they want to come back.” 

“We need to understand our own biases,” says Dr. Sinha. “Do we give up more quickly? Do we say, 'Okay, you don't want this treatment, fine’?” These biases can all affect the outcomes of treatment for patients.

Biases and lack of cultural sensitivity are just two factors that may drive health disparities. Find out other barriers to health care that lead to health disparities, and learn more about ways health care is connecting vulnerable populations.