Nurses in the United States can expect to encounter several unfamiliar cultural practices throughout their careers.

Depending on where you practice, you might find your cultural knowledge base challenged every day or it might only happen a few times a year. What you can plan on is wanting to make sure you don’t offend your patients because you don’t understand their practices or their beliefs.

Even if they seem unusual, complicated, or outdated to you, the most important attitude shift you can make is to remember they aren’t your practices to adapt. But it is your job to honor them for the sake of your patient’s comfort. Culturally competent nursing practice makes you a better nurse overall.

With so many different practices in the world, and even varying practices within a single culture or religion, you don’t have to spend hours studying to get it all right. Although it’s helpful to become familiar with the cultures you see most often, the best way to find out what is important to your patients and their families is to do one simple thing – ask.

Ask new patients about their preferences and if they have any religious or cultural guidelines they follow in their everyday lives. These could range from food preparation and serving to modesty issues. Some families have a strict order of hierarchy, so talking with a patient could involve the entire immediate family.

Talking with your patients and asking them questions, not only helps you take better care of them but it also helps you both establish mutual trust. And if your patients trust that you will honor something so important to them, they are much more likely to be open and honest with you about their own health care practices (especially when they are not following medical orders for a culturally influenced reason).

One of the biggest benefits of practicing culturally competent care is the honest relationship you’ll establish. If they are open with you, you will be able to develop a health plan that will include awareness of certain habits or practices and will find substitutions for others. If your diabetic patient has a period of fasting he or she strictly adheres to, mandating food during that time could easily be ignored. Trying to find a way to accommodate the practice within safe and healthy guidelines will help both of you.

Nurses also find some self reflection helpful when they are dealing with a culturally diverse population or even just one population they are not familiar with. If you are aware of any biases, any fears, and any prejudices you have, you can work hard to keep them from interfering with a patient’s requests.

If you’d like to fine-tune your nursing skills in this area, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Service’s Office of Minority Health offers the free Culturally Competent Nursing Care: A Cornerstone of Caring e-course.

Showing cultural understanding and compassion can go a long way toward making your patient feel comfortable and ensuring a proper follow through on health instructions.

Julia Quinn-Szcesuil

Julia Quinn-Szcesuil is a freelance writer based in Bolton, Massachusetts.
Julia Quinn-Szcesuil

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