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How to Provide Culturally Competent Care


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By Christina Orlovsky, senior writer, and Karen Siroky, RN, MSN, contributor

As the nation’s population becomes more diverse, so do the needs of the patient population that enters U.S. hospitals. As caregivers with direct contact with patients from a wide spectrum of races, ethnicities and religions, nurses need to be aware and respectful of the varying needs and beliefs of all of their patients.

In its position statement on cultural diversity in nursing practice, the American Nurses Association (ANA) states that: “Knowledge of cultural diversity is vital at all levels of nursing practice…nurses need to understand: how cultural groups understand life processes; how cultural groups define health and illness; what cultural groups do to maintain wellness; what cultural groups believe to be the causes of illness; how healers cure and care for members of cultural groups; and how the cultural background of the nurse influences the way in which care is delivered.”

Additionally, the Joint Commission requires that all patients have the right to care that is sensitive to, respectful of and responsive to their cultural and religious/spiritual beliefs and values. Assessment of patients includes cultural and religious practices in order to provide appropriate care to meet their special needs and to assist in determining their response to illness, treatment and participation in their health care.

There are a number of ways to comply with the requirements for providing culturally diverse care.

First, be self-aware; know how your views and behavior is affected by culture. Appreciate the dynamics of cultural differences to anticipate and respond to miscommunications. Seek understanding of your patients cultural and religious beliefs and values systems. Determine their degree of compliance with their religion/culture, and do not assume.

Furthermore, respond to patients’ special needs, which may include food preferences, visitors, gender of health care workers, medical care preferences, rituals, gender roles, eye contact and communication style, authority and decision making, alternative therapies, prayer practices and beliefs about organ or tissue donation.

Kathleen Hanson, Ph.D., MN, associate professor and interim executive associate dean for academic affairs at the University of Iowa, summarized the importance of learning cultural diversity in nursing education.

“Cultural competency is threaded throughout the nursing school curriculum. We teach every course with the idea that there’s content that may need to be explained for a diverse student group,” Hanson said. “In nursing, cultural competency has been around for a long time. I think that’s probably something that the nursing profession recognized maybe a bit before some other disciplines. We’ve always worked in public health, so we have always seen the diversity of America.”

Hanson concluded: “We need to be able to care for diverse populations because our country is growing increasingly diverse. Oftentimes persons who are in minority groups or who are underrepresented have different health care needs. It’s important for us to have a student population that is as equally diverse as our client; we need to prepare a workforce that not only knows how to work with diverse peoples, but also represents them.”

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