5 Things You Didn’t Know About Being a Culturally Competent Clinician

cultural competence

*This article was written in February 2020.*

In the year 2020, Whites are still the majority race at 60.4% of the U.S. population.1 However, U.S. demographics are shifting, and it’s predicted that by 2055, Whites will no longer be the majority race.2 Growth in Hispanic and Asian populations is predicted to nearly triple over the next 40 years.3 And while the U.S.-born Black population is not likely to increase significantly in the next four decades, this population still makes up a large portion of our clientele and patients.4 Additionally, the population of foreign-born individuals is expected to increase to 19% by 2060.5

Now is the time to become aware of the different cultures in our society because these cultures represent the families we work with and the clients and patients we serve.

With this information, the question always becomes, “How do I make myself more culturally competent so I can best serve patients who are from a different background than my own?” Most clinicians have some idea as to the steps we can take, but I want to provide you with a few areas of cultural competence that you may not readily have in mind.

1. You’ll Never Be a Culturally Competent Clinician.

This may sound harsh, but the fact is that no one will ever truly be culturally competent. Think of how many different cultures there are. Now think of all of the different ways to understand culture. It’s just not going to happen.

Instead, think of becoming a culturally competent clinician as a journey and not a destination and enjoy the ride.

2. Knowledge of Other Cultures Is Everywhere… You Just Need to Know Where to Look.

Sometimes I think we feel that the only way to learn about other cultures is to sit through a webinar, attend a conference session, or ask a colleague. While these ways are good, there are still many other ways.

Take the time to look at the world you live in through another lens. Turn on a radio station you wouldn’t normally listen to. You’ll hear the news of that community and understand what’s important to them. Watch a TV show that has characters who don’t look like you. At some point, they will talk about aspects of their lives that pertain to their culture, and you will not only learn a bit but be pleasantly entertained as well. Lastly, read a fiction book about a culture you are unfamiliar with. Learn a bit about the dialect they speak or the background knowledge they have while also introducing yourself to a new author.

3. You Will Offend Someone at Some Point—And You Probably Already Have.

This is a hard fact for people to wrap their heads around. But it’s true. As much as we want to say the right thing, do the right thing, and be respectful all the time, it’s impossible.

This is because we don’t know what we don’t know. For example, if you don’t know it’s usually offensive to refer to a Black person as “articulate,” then you may unintentionally offend someone. What do you do when you’ve offended someone? Don’t get defensive. Don’t say “I didn’t mean to.” Instead, learn from it, don’t do it again, and share your mistake with others.

4. Culture Has Many Different Appearances.

It’s important to remember that culture isn’t just Black and White (literally and figuratively).

Culture is age, style of dress, gender identity, race, ethnicity, nationality, ability, disability, occupation, geographic location, language, dialect, and more. If we can understand that, then we will be able to better care for people who belong to the varieties of different cultures that we encounter on a daily basis.

5. Understanding of Someone Else’s Culture Is Not Enough. You Must Validate It Too.

Most of us have gotten to the point in our cultural awareness journey that we know we need to learn about differences and gain a better understanding of those differences. But there’s another critical step that is necessary to grasp—validation and respect for those differences.

If there is no validation or respect for the cultural differences that exist among us, then we have gained nothing on our journey to cultural competence.

You can learn more about how race and culture affect clinical practice in my MedBridge course, “I Don’t See Color: How Your Cultural Identity Shapes Your Clinical Practice.”

  1. United States Census Bureau. Retrieved June 5, 2020, from https://www.census.gov/quickfacts/fact/table/US/IPE120218
  2. Pew Research Center. (2015). Modern immigration wave brings 59 million to U.S., driving population growth and change through 2065. Retrieved June 5, 2020, from https://www.pewresearch.org/hispanic/2015/09/28/modern-immigration-wave-brings-59-million-to-u-s-driving-population-growth-and-change-through-2065/#post-1965-immigration-drives-u-s-population-growth-through-2065
  3. Hudson, R. B. (ed.) (2010). The New Politics of Old Age Policy, 2nd Ed. Baltimore, MD: The Johns Hopkins University Press.
  4. Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality. (n/d). Chartbook on Health Care for Blacks. Retrieved June 8, 2020, from https://www.ahrq.gov/research/findings/nhqrdr/chartbooks/blackhealth/part1.html
  5. Colby, S. L. & Ortman, J. M. (2015). Projections of the size and composition of the U.S. population: 2014 to 2060. Retrieved June 5, 2020, from https://www.census.gov/content/dam/Census/library/publications/2015/demo/p25-1143.pdf