If there is one thing surgical nurse Rochelle Scott has learned from her patients, it is to assume nothing. No matter how well she might think she understands a culture or a tradition important to her patients, Scott learned through repeated interactions that each patient, no matter what his or her heritage, will interpret and use cultural norms in slightly different ways.

“Giving the culture respect, and honoring that when it is appropriate, shows the patient they can trust you,” says Scott, who is midway through her master’s degree in the nurse practitioner program at Mount Saint Mary College in Newburgh, New York.

When you care for patients of Southeast Asian descent, with cultures that may include but are not limited to Hmong, Vietnamese, Chinese, or Thai people, learning a bit about the cultural norms and traditions can positively impact health care outcomes. But the languages and traditions of this group are incredibly diverse and have many nuances that impact literacy, child-rearing practices, elder care, and self-healing. Thankfully, nurses are in a great position to do some research, interact frequently, and discover the individual subtleties of their patients’ heritages.

When Dr. Madeleine Leininger introduced the idea of transcultural nursing in the 1950s, the idea was outside the norm. As cultural diversity and the promotion of cultural competence in health care settings becomes more mainstream, the idea continues to take shape in nursing programs. Dr. Priscilla Sagar, R.N., A.C.N.S.-B.A., C.T.N.-A., professor of nursing at Mount Saint Mary College, says nurses are often called on to lead the journey, bringing cultural competence standards into practice in academic settings, health care practices, and research.

“One of the biggest barriers is the lack of research about the populations,” says Sagar, referring to Southeast Asian patients. “Usually [research] has lumped them in saying ‘Asian/Pacific Islanders’ instead of separating them.”

The distinctions are vitally important when trying to determine something like typical growth and development for instance, says Sagar. Growth and development in a Filipino child might look delayed to some when, in fact, it is normal for that group, she says.

On the job

When on the job, though, cultural competence may not be as well defined. For instance, Dr. Margaret Andrews, R.N., F.A.A.N., C.T.N., Director and professor of nursing at the University of Michigan-Flint, cites instances of health care practitioners suspecting child abuse when children have shown up at doctors’ offices with red marks from the Asian practice of coining. Coining—the custom of rubbing coins over the skin (especially ribs of children with a cold) to create friction and warmth to rid the body of what is assumed to be bad winds or to fight off a cold—also leaves red marks on the skin. If you are not aware of the practice, it might raise suspicions of maltreatment.

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The idea of coining, says Andrews, is not so different from Western practices of trying to restore balance to the body. The outcome looks a little different, but it helps if the medical staff is aware of the practice and any other practices of the cultures they frequently treat. They can then respectfully and effectively treat the patient without seeming to dismiss their beliefs. For example, if a child’s cough really is pneumonia, more intervention is necessary. If any herbs have been used for self-treatment, there has to be enough trust so the patient will share what has been used without fear of rebuke. Andrews recommends nurses reference the National Center for Complementary and Alternative medicine’s website at nccam.nih.gov for more in-depth information.

For many nurses, the desire to understand other cultures is the first step toward effective change. “Without the desire, it would be difficult for health care providers to embark on this journey,” Sagar says.

For instance, many cultures in Southeast Asia are family focused and oriented, Sagar says. In the United States, where medical decisions are generally made independent of the extended family, a medical decision that weighs the opinions of many family members might seem different. “But in many of these cultures, the family is involved,” she says.

And while the health care providers have to recognize that, they also have to gain a sense of any underlying factors. Sometimes, especially for immigrants, there is a sense of being in two worlds, both of which might have conflicting values, Sagar says. “If they are second generation and if they were born here and have grown up here, their values may be more Western than Eastern,” while the family values remain decidedly Eastern. The opinions can create a real family conflict.

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For nurses, it is a matter of figuring out how it all reflects on the patient’s care. “When you first get educated, it is all about retaining it and incorporating it into the health care with the patient,” Scott says. Even something as simple as being aware of major holidays for that culture can make a patient feel recognized and feel his or her culture is respected. No one wants to schedule a procedure around a major celebration if it is not necessary.

Perform cultural assessments and learn about the top three or four cultures you work with, even small details like how to address the patient, Andrews recommends. In some Asian cultures, the first and last names are in reverse order from Western usage. “Ask them, ‘By what name may I call you?’” Andrews says. “Generally, it is better to address more formally and wait to see if they give you permission later to call them something else.”

Andrews also recommends being aware of the tradition of wearing an amulet to bring good luck or a talisman to ward off bad luck that many Southeast Asian populations honor. “That may give a signal to the nurse that they have spiritual beliefs they are bringing to a health care setting,” Andrews says. “You need to respect those.”

When traditions or beliefs that are important to the patient are not recognized, it can set up a rocky start to a relationship between nurse and patient. “It is the little things that can be frustrating for the patient,” Scott says. “Then the patient feels neglected or disregarded.”

According to Guadalupe Pacheco, Senior Health Advisor at the Office of Minority Health, there is a disconnect that exists between the demographics of the nation and that of health care professionals. Pacheco says that while various ethnic groups compose nearly one-third of the population, the nursing population does not mirror that proportion.

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When the patient and provider come from a similar cultural background, the common factor often inspires trust Pacheco, says, but even the most radically different backgrounds can still work well. “It is all about communication,” says Pacheco. “If you establish that rapport with a provider and patient, they will come back to you. They are going to trust the diagnosis you make and the treatment you are prescribing.” And while health care professionals work hard to overcome any language barriers, understanding the cultural barriers as well will ensure that a patient not only trusts a provider, but also understands what is being prescribed and why it is important to follow through.

Think like your patient

Imagine being in your patients’ shoes, says Pacheco, where the system may seem very foreign and difficult. Creating a calm environment is a big step toward putting a patient at ease, he says, despite the difficult time and pressure nurses are under.

Sometimes thinking like your patient, even briefly, gives clues as to how to proceed.  Eunice Lee, Ph.D., G.N.P., a UCLA School of Nursing associate professor, had success in implementing change to get more Korean American women to have mammograms. Even the cultural differences between Korean and Korean American women can be vast. “I am struck by how cultural norms impact women’s behavior,” Lee says. “Korean American women do not tend to take care of themselves. Women prioritize family needs first with husbands and children. They are at the bottom of the list, especially if they have no symptoms.”

In the late 1990s, only 10%–20% of Korean American women were getting mammograms, says Lee. The number has since doubled but is still very influenced by the cultural context.

Lee implemented a program where she used a popular Korean vegetable dish as the program’s acronym, KIM-CHI (Korean Immigrants and Mammography: Culture-Specific Health Intervention). By presenting mammography as a normal, routine health screening and educating the husband and the woman together, screening rates jumped 15% in Lee’s intervention group.

“When you educate the woman, you need to consider and evaluate her support system and how they can help her, rather than have it purely focused on the individual,” Lee says. Health care providers might want to encourage the husband to support the woman in taking time off from work or family obligations to get screened. Lee also expressed the strong cultural resistance to getting treated, even in a screening manner, for illness in the absence of any symptoms. “When you don’t have symptoms, you are not ‘sick,’” she says of some patients’ beliefs.

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Use your resources

At Lowell General Hospital in Massachusetts, Brenda Murphy, R.N., a med/surg float, works closely with the hospital’s cultural interpreters to give her patients the best care. In addition to taking advantage of work-sponsored cultural education and training, she picks up appropriate behaviors within each culture from observing and asking questions.

Murphy, who works with Lowell’s extensive Cambodian population, says she always put her hands together to give an elderly patient a small bow as a sign of respect when leaving. At the advice of a cultural interpreter, she adjusted the height of her hands, as hands that are placed too low can be seen as insulting, rather than respectful. Murphy also says she is careful when touching the head of a Khmer patient as the cultural traditions of some Khmer say the soul resides there. If it is possible to ask permission, she always does. Eye contact might be unnerving to Khmer patients as well, who sometimes avoid it as a sign of respect. They may prefer also very limited physical contact.

Many hospitals prefer to use medical interpreters to ensure accuracy in translation of complex medical terms and to protect a patient’s privacy. In their absence, nurses might have to rely on more rudimentary methods like flash cards or pictures to help both patient and nurse. Pacheco discourages the use of family members as interpreters, especially children. “Sometimes you have no choice, but it is best to introduce a bilingual neutral party who also understands medical terms,” he says. Family members can help fill in the missing information about symptoms the patient is experiencing or treatments used.

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Moving forward

“It is encouraging,” Sagar says of the progress being made. In the next couple of decades, as minority populations grow, cultural competence in nursing will become much more crucial to quality patient care. “I am passionate about cultural diversity and the promotion of cultural competence,” she says. As an immigrant herself, Sagar says she knows the experience of “being different from the rest.”

When Lowell General Hospital was forming plans for diversity training, staff recognized that diversity was as much of an essential component of patient care as medicines and procedures, says Deborah Bergholm-Petka, Manager of Training and Development. Nurses have the opportunity to learn about cultures through monthly celebrations in the hospital. The staff is also encouraged to reference the book Culture & Clinical Care,which gives general summaries of many cultural beliefs and attitudes.
Use what your work environment offers and know a little bit about the cultures served. “Know who your resources are and how to access them,” Murphy suggests. “Now we are more proactive and aware of who makes up our communities.”

Be ready for all situations when you work with many different cultures. Continually ask yourself reflective questions, suggests Venus Watson, chair of Lowell General’s Diversity Council. For instance, how will you navigate various cultural wishes and accommodate a patient while ensuring the best care and follow up? If family members want to speak for a patient, how can you best introduce an interpreter?

“It is not about the nurse,” Scott says. “It is about the patient. You can offend people when it comes to culture.” Never assume you know what a patient wants, she says. Rather, gain knowledge, be aware, and ask the patient—the solution is often that simple. “People do pass judgment on beliefs,” Scott says, “but it is education that will change the system.”

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