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Cultural Competence:
Developing and Using Cross-Cultural Communication Skills

Cultural Competence: Developing and Using Cross-Cultural Communication Skills

Introduction: What does it mean to communicate with cultural competence?

The United States is one of the most culturally diverse countries in the world. Once populated largely by Native Americans and Europeans, the U.S. is now home to people from every corner of the globe. According to the Census Bureau, by 2050, racial and ethnic minorities will comprise nearly half of the population in the U.S. For healthcare professionals, this means that more and more of your coworkers, the physicians who staff your clinic or hospital, and — most importantly — the patients you care for, will have roots in places other than the United States.

Given this fact, becoming culturally competent and developing skills to communicate effectively with people who are not completely proficient with the English language, have distinctive social or religious views, or honor traditions that are unique to their cultures is a critical element in delivering quality healthcare and providing good service. In addition, it’s important to remember that diversity transcends race and ethnicity. Other examples of diversity within your patient population might include the elderly, the physically or mentally disabled, gays and lesbians, and individuals from a wide range of socio-economic backgrounds.

What is cultural competence? There are several technical definitions of cultural competence in the medical literature, but an easier way to explain the concept is to point out some of the behaviors associated with it. Culturally competent individuals working in the healthcare field would, for example:

  • Value and embrace diversity, not just “tolerate” it.
  • Be curious about other cultures and seek to understand and honor the values and traditions commonly held by the patient population they serve.
  • Take steps to ensure that communication is clear and effective with patients for whom English is not a first language or who have disabilities (age related or not) that might impair their ability to understand important information.


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