It’s no secret that health care professionals must identify, respect, and care about their patients’ differences, values, preferences, and expressed needs. Nurses, physicians, allied health professionals: all need to be attentive when interacting with patients, and be sensitive to and respectful of their perspectives regarding health and wellness. The health care reform law currently being debated in Congress shifts some of the attention from how doctors are paid and how medical care is organized to how medical decisions are made and how those decisions affect care receivers. Some patients’ backgrounds might be similar to those of the care provider and some may be different. It’s the differences that cry out for attention.

More significantly, the differences, particularly the rampant socioeconomic disparities observed among racial and ethnic groups in the United States, can influence whether patients can even access high quality health care—perhaps care of any kind. The need for understanding, and for cultural competency training becomes clear when you look at the high incidence of diabetes and prostate cancer among African Americans; the high number of stress-related disorders among South Asian men; and the fact that Latinos have the highest median cholesterol level of any other group. Each of these facts impact communities and compounds aspects of public health. They affect the quality and vitality of, as well as exacerbate, public health issues.

“Diversity is our strength,” rolls off the tongues of politicians, community activists, and academics; even consultants and the mass media spread the mantra. In health care, where patient-provider interactions, empirical and inferential research, and clinical procedures continue to illuminate the importance of diversity, these differences have, perhaps, the greatest impact. This can be clinically referred to as cultural health care competence—one aspect of the national health care sector that has taken on enormous significance as a public health concern.

It is estimated that in another 15 years, our country’s demographic landscape will reflect a minority representation of roughly 40% of the U.S. population; already African Americans represent 13% and Hispanic Americans represent 16%. The National Institutes of Health are focused on how these statistics have galvanized the health care sector and are attempting to close the gap between the health status and health care of minorities versus the rest of the population.

Tackling this issue is not exactly new. What’s missing is firm commitment. In 1999, physician Lisa Cooper-Patrick researched to understand the extent to which racial and ethnic disparities, in health status and use of health services, were related to the nuances within the physician-patient interaction. She examined how physicians’ participatory decision-making style impacted the quality of care. Her findings provided evidence that physician bias was a significant contributor to the disparities in providing quality care to certain minorities and ethnic groups.

Other research has shown a discrepancy in patients’ access to organ transplants. When changes to Medicare passed, also in 1999, African Americans and Hispanics were 28% and 31% less likely, respectively, to be recommended for kidney/pancreas transplants. These disparities are likely tied to the inordinately high numbers of diabetics in both African American and Hispanic communities.

Cooper-Patrick’s research uncovered that African American patients described less participatory visits with their physician compared to Caucasian patients’ visits. When the patient and the physician shared race or ethnicity, patients reported a more participatory experience. She concludes, in part, that physician factors such as “unintentional” (my emphasis) racial biases contributed qualitatively to the patient’s experience and implicated the clinical outcomes. These results demonstrate how disparity affects patient care. Cooper-Patrick also studied a lack of physician capability regarding how to negotiate treatment and engage the patient across cultures.

When Kerry Watson, Chief Executive of Durham Regional Hospital in North Carolina, assumed leadership of the facility a few years ago, he addressed this issue after securing the support of the senior leadership of the Duke System. Watson then issued a directive that “every employee—every manager, every physician, every nurse, all 1,200 employees—would receive eight hours of cultural competency training, and this training was and remains the business case central to erasing the facility’s reputation as providing substandard care.”

Its impact was transformational. Employee morale and performance, community support, and the hospital’s financial performance improved significantly. “It’s about providing exceptional customer-patient service,” he added. Watson tackled a tradition of care once tainted by bias. The transformation, as reflected in evolving patient satisfaction data, continues to validate the ongoing need for cultural health care competency training, essential to the hospital’s integrated-care programs.

In short, diverse patient needs and race-related health disparities necessitate cultural competency training. If the treating physician is incapable of or lacking in cultural competence to engage these patients so that they may fully participate in their own wellness, the consequences are not only issues of disparity, but threats to the larger community as a public health issue.

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