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.
New nurse graduates have a lot on their plate. With diploma in hand, they can barely shout a celebratory “woo hoo” before passing the NCLEX becomes the next focus. But this early time in your nursing career is an especially important time to begin laying the foundation of the kind of nurse you want to be.
Nursing students often say connecting with patients is what makes their long days worthwhile. No matter what population you will be working with, finding a way to bridge the gap and connect with patients makes your job easier and builds confidence and satisfaction for your patients.
Here are a few ways to start building relationships—whether they last for hours or years—it makes a difference.
1. Introduce Yourself
Your patients have medical professionals coming in and out of their rooms all day long. Don’t take it personally if they don’t remember your name or when you first came in or even what you need to do. Tell them your name and what you will be doing. Let them know how long you’ll be taking care of them.
2. Be Present
With all the hectic happenings in a healthcare setting, nurses have to have eyes and ears open to everything. Sometimes that means when you are with a patient, you aren’t 100 percent focused on them. Making the effort to bring your attention to the patient in front of you helps. “Be present in the moment,” advises Pamela Chally, Dean Emeritus, Brooks College of Health, University of North Florida. “Even something nonverbal does a lot for being present. It can be a touch or eye contact,” she says.
3. Keep Them Updated
Let your patients know what to expect. If you know they’ll have a CAT scan later in the day, let them know the approximate time. If that time changes, pass that information along. They might have questions about what’s going on and why they need certain tests or procedures. Let them know or, if you don’t know all the details, find out for them.
4. Spend Some Time
This is the most difficult piece because time is one thing nurses don’t have to spare. But making the most of your time with a patient can help overcome the quantity of the time you can offer. You can’t sit in the room and chat the afternoon away, but you can ask them about their outside life. Talk about the latest baseball game, their scrapbooking habit, or what they like about their job.
5. Learn About Them
If they have family in the room, try to learn a little about them and about your patient as well. Be mindful if a family doesn’t want to talk, but also listen for small details that aren’t volatile. Hobbies, favorite places, favorite foods, or upcoming events they are looking forward to are all great ways to connect and will help break the ice.
6. Have Patience
In addition to their professional skill and their calm demeanor, nurses’ patience is legendary. But having patience isn’t always easy, and when you have patients who are scared, in pain, or just not particularly pleasant, it can be downright difficult. Watch the nurses around you to see what coping techniques they have developed to deal when tempers flare in your setting. Do they deflect with questions? Do they ignore the situation and continue on calmly or do they address it directly? What does your manager recommend when you encounter a situation that’s not easy? And find your own way of bringing yourself back to a calm place when things get tough.
7. Make It Personal
With so many people to care for, it’s not going to be easy to remember small details about everyone. But if you can remember your patient is especially nervous about blood draws, has very particular food preferences or issues, or is more modest than most (or not!), you can be prepared for those situations. Showing that you care about them as a person will help build a mutual trust.
Building relationships with patients, no matter what setting you see them in, has a ripple effect. You’ll make their stay or visit more pleasant, but you’ll also feel more satisfaction from having connected with them, too. And if your patient trusts you and feels like you are advocating for their interests, they are more likely to listen to what you say and ask questions when they don’t understand something.
Building a relationship with a patient can lead them on a path to better health overall and a better quality of life—what nurse doesn’t want that?
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