Culturally Competent Health Care Is More Than Just Words

One of the keys to delivering exceptional patient experience is stepping into our patients’ shoes—seeing things from their perspective.

Cambodian medical interpreter Veera Som, a 19-year veteran of Fairview’s Language Services’ team, says translating conversations between patients and providers is important, but it’s just part of the job for interpreters.

For those who work directly with patients, awareness of cultural beliefs, attitudes and differences completes the interconnected web of patient interactions.

A good relationship
Cultural competency with our patients means the difference between a good patient-care team relationship and a patient leaving for another health system where they feel their needs are better understood.

Myat Tun, Fairview equity and inclusion consultant, says these factors can also improve patient compliance.

“If I trust my physician, I will take my medication regularly, or I will take my immunization shot.”

In addition, word-of-mouth matters. Somali communities in the Twin Cities, for example, may be closer knit, which means our reputation is a more powerful force.

“People will come back again and may refer within their own community,” says Myat.

Understanding differences
Understanding cultural differences is essential.

For example, In American culture, some patients may appreciate a doctor being direct when giving a cancer diagnosis. But, in Cambodian culture, bluntness could translate into rudeness. For that reason, Veera will likely try a softer approach.

“I have to make my patient feel comfortable—not so startled, not so shocked,” she says.

Veera and other interpreters are an integral part of the patient care team, working to ensure our patients with limited English proficiency are empowered to communicate clearly with their care teams, to ask questions and understand their health circumstances and plan of care.

“I just really like my patients. I always want to be with them, to support them,” says Veera.

As a Fairview employee, Veera is able to access patients’ medical records to prepare for interpreting sessions. She also meets with providers before interactions with patients to learn about their situations and conversations providers will be having with patients.

If a provider has never used an interpreter before, she’ll brief her or him on the process, explaining that she’ll interpret exactly what the provider says but may need pauses in the conversation to ensure accuracy.

Myat says cultural competency won’t ever be a finished product. With shifts in populations, cultural competency expands to include differences in sexual orientation, gender identity and socio-economic status.

What remain the same, however, are the three key points for providing an exceptional, culturally competent experience: improving interpersonal skills, knowledge and awareness.

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