The Role of Cultural Sensitivity in Building Patient Relationships

The Role of Cultural Sensitivity in Building Patient Relationships

Culture is everywhere—and it defines almost every aspect of our lives in one way or another. That can be true across a variety of dynamics, including how someone functions within a family, relates to others, or responds to stress. Nurses encounter patients and families with myriad cultural influences every day. That’s why understanding and practicing cultural sensitivity is so important for building relationships and providing excellence in patient care.

The Importance of Building Relationships

In any setting, trusting relationships are important. However, some patients may hesitate to trust health care providers because of several factors—such as a history of discrimination, disparity in representations of diverse people as care providers, and lack of recognition of the particular challenges that some patients face.

According to a report from the American Psychological Association (APA), individuals with low incomes or those from racial or ethnic minority groups are more likely to experience severe stress than others, a dynamic that can lead to poorer mental and physical health outcomes. Unfortunately, such individuals may be less likely to pursue medical care because of financial concerns or fear of discrimination from a provider. However, if clinicians learn to build trusting relationships, then those who need care may feel more comfortable in accessing it.

The Role of Cultural Sensitivity

Previously referred to as “cultural competency,” cultural sensitivity requires that nurses possess the needed skills to affirm diversity and embrace the values of people from different social or cultural backgrounds. Practicing cultural sensitivity is essential to building relationships, since it helps nurses step outside of their own perspectives to better understand the unique needs of the patients and families for whom they provide care.

The shift in language from “competency” to “sensitivity” underscores the role of culture across an individual’s life and care continuum, and the need for clinicians to recognize the importance of this dynamic. Thus, when nurses become educated about different cultures, they are better equipped for building relationships with patients and families, which can help to improve outcomes of care.

Strategies for Building Trust

In addition to learning about different cultures, nurses can make use of empowering strategies to help patients and families feel understood and accepted; such strategies are included in The National Education Association’s Diversity Toolkit:

  • Use inclusive language in written and verbal discussions.
  • Ask each client for their preferred pronouns, even when you feel sure of their gender.
  • Take time to learn proper pronunciation of each person’s name.
  • Ask for permission before touching or hugging each person.
  • Learn cultural customs for any community or group with whom you are working closely.
  • Encourage patients to have a family member accompany them if privacy is needed.
  • Offer to translate information or rewrite it in more understandable terms if someone is having difficulty reading or understanding complex medical information.
  • Know the cultural or diversity-related resources in your community.

To learn more about the role of cultural sensitivity in building relationships, see “How To Be Culturally Sensitive Working with Clients with a Range of Identities.”