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Why Cultural Competency Matters in Hospitals

By Lena J. Weiner  
   January 19, 2015

As the nation's population grows more diverse and hospital reimbursements are increasingly tied to patient satisfaction scores, clinicians must become more culturally aware.

Many Americans have experienced watching a foreign film and feeling like they missed something, whether it be the British political jokes in The Life of Brian or the nuanced treatment of the Spanish civil war in Pan's Labyrinth, something has been  lost in translation.

But what if what's missing is something more serious? What if what's missing is an important element of patient care?

As the nation's population grows more diverse, it's increasingly important to be aware of the influence of culture on everything from a patient's diet to attitudes about death and dying as we move to a patient-centered care model, says Joe Betancourt, MD, director of the Disparities Solution Center at Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston. He is co-founder of Quality Interactions, an organization that seeks to spread cultural competence in healthcare.

"There is strength in diversity, but there are also challenges," says Betancourt. "Studies have shown that greater difficulties in communication lead to poorer patient experience, lower adherence, and ultimately, worse outcomes."

HR, he says, is in the perfect position to make decisions that can lead to a more culturally aware and competent hospital. Unfortunately, this is an uphill battle for healthcare workers to fight.

"Research shows that if you have two patients in an emergency room where everything is identical—they have the same income, the same insurance, are both dressed professionally, but they are just different races, the minority patient will receive a lower quality of care."

"Often, it is due to communication challenges," Betancourt explains.

Lena J. Weiner is an associate editor at HealthLeaders Media.

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