Health Professions Students Must Achieve Cultural Competency

As the demand for qualified healthcare professionals continues to grow and the U.S. population becomes increasingly diverse, college advisors and mentors must be prepared to help students in the health professions achieve cultural competency.

While many students assume an aptitude for science and a wealth of medical knowledge is what will help them succeed, the best healthcare providers also excel at cultural competency — something which requires the right attitude and a willingness to learn from patients as well as treat them. In order to best advise these students and help them reach their goals, it is important to be familiar with the skills and attributes crucial for success in the postgraduate application process and eventual transition to the healthcare field. 

The following tips rely on the Association of American Colleges and Universities’ (AAC&U) Intercultural Knowledge and Competence VALUE Rubric based on attitudes, skills, and knowledge as well as a few related concepts. 

An Attitude of Acceptance

To be a culturally competent healthcare provider, one must have an attitude of openness and acceptance when treating patients with whom he or she has little in common. A core component of healthcare and effective treatment planning is a holistic understanding of the patients — their valued life roles, their relationships with others, and the environments in which they live and work. Exceptional healthcare providers take the time to learn about the patients and families they serve and embrace opportunities to learn about cultural differences.  

This level of cultural competence requires a strong understanding of self and worldview frameworks. The AAC&U describes it as an ability to “measure our capacity to identify our own cultural patterns, [and to] compare and contrast them with others.” Thus, students who are willing to pursue thoughtful interactions with those who have different backgrounds and perspectives than themselves — and who are willing to reflect on their own worldviews in the context of these conversations — are excellent candidates for a career in the health professions.

Similarly, healthcare providers who can ask complex questions as a means to understand the lived experiences of their patients will serve them better than one who provides answers without asking the right questions. A dose of cultural humility will aid in this process, as the provider will be less likely to make assumptions about what is best for the patient without taking the specific patient and his or her context into consideration. 

A Willingness to Learn

Acquiring this level of humility and understanding of self is necessary for many reasons. Developing the ability to concede to another person’s point of view aids in the ability to admit when a course of treatment is not the best option for a specific patient and be willing to try something new, as failure is a key way to improve and grow. Carol Dweck’s growth mindset research suggests that a willingness to learn and an affinity towards continued growth as students and professionals are important tools for excellence during the academic program and subsequently in healthcare professions. Students must be able to accurately self-assess and identify areas for growth.  

In addition to these attitudes, necessary core skills in healthcare include empathy, communication, and problem solving. Empathy in this context refers to the ability to “adapt …  flexibly to other ways of being,” according to the AAC&U. To put it another way, healthcare workers should be able and willing to view a situation from the vantage point of the patient. He or she is more likely to confide in and be honest with a practitioner who tries to better understand his or her lived experience. 

Flexible Communication Skills

Communication is another attribute necessary to be a competent, compassionate healthcare provider. In the age of texting and Snapchat, some students will likely have less experience and comfort with face-to-face interactions. Good healthcare providers, however, are able to be clear and direct, as well as be careful listeners. Again, an attitude of openness is crucial to identifying and respecting cultural differences in communication styles in order to effectively work with patients.  

Being a student in the healthcare field requires significant dedication and interests in the sciences and in psychology, sociology, and research methods. In addition to this vast knowledge base, successful healthcare providers are motivated by a desire to help people. These are all factors necessary to be a great practitioner — but they must be coupled with a true curiosity, openness, and acceptance of patients’ cultures and worldviews.

Becky Neiduski, PhD, is dean of the school of health sciences at Elon University. Brooke Barnett, PhD, is associate provost for academic and inclusive excellence and a professor of communications at Elon University and a member of the INSIGHT Into Diversity Editorial Board. This article ran in our May 2018 issue.