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What the Health: Cultural Competency In Health

Koror, Palau-Globalization is inevitable. It’s been in motion since the dawning of mankind’s initial migration from and to all corners of the globe and in the last century we’ve seen it more prominently than ever before. Migration and social integration have brought both benefits and disadvantages to all peoples and cultures, affecting political and economic structures.

In terms of health, we see through historiography that migration and the integration of cultures within societies have resulted with both the introduction of new diseases, as well as discovery of therapies and practices that promote wellbeing and protect health among different populations. And while the western, biomedical model of health has since become the default template for healthcare systems across the globe, a more holistic and ecological view of health has also seen resurgence.

Straying away from a purely disease based model of health care, some countries around the world that recognize indigenous populations are now incorporating their concepts of health and well being into health promotion strategies and health services delivery designs. New Zealand for example, takes into account the Maori world view and health concepts, which recognize the value of leadership, identity, collective autonomy, social justice and equity. This allows them to address Maori health issues through indirect means such as strengthening cultural identity, community and social cohesion. This practice of identifying and incorporating indigenous knowledge, philosophies and practices into mainstream health and healthcare structures is a demonstration of cultural competency in health.

So we may ask why this would be important. First, as humans, we tend to be more comfortable with what we are familiar with and trust in the knowledge that we possess. Things that are unfamiliar and unknown we face with hesitation and uncertainty. It’s like choosing a barber or a bank over others because of our positive experience with them. Second, we have pride in our culture – believing in our traditions and heritage and our own viewpoints and values.

Whatever we try to do for a particular cultural group, be it improving health or addressing social issues, it is imperative to first understand their unique attitudes, beliefs, traditions and other traits that define who they are. This allows for the use of best practices that build upon existing beliefs and attitudes that people have.

Cultural competency in health, just like in business and international relations, allows us not only to understand people’s cultures and specific needs, but more importantly, to respect their views and values. Emphasizing cultural competency in public health and health care service delivery increases the efficacy of health protection, promotion and curative efforts.

Among other things, a practical application of cultural competency in the health setting can mean translating health information materials into different languages to allow for better reception and understanding by the targeted audience and utilizing health messages and images that are culturally relevant and appropriate. It also means professionalism in all client and patient care and services, ensuring equality of service delivery that is non-discriminative and not based on a person’s ethnicity, gender, age, religion, or sexuality. It means ensuring that policies and regulations have appropriate language that does not promote labelling or stigma among certain cultural groups.

And so while globalization is inevitable with migration and cultural integration ever increasing, perhaps now more than ever, cultural competency needs to be emphasized, realized, and applied in the public health discourse and health care system designs. As different people have their own respective cultures, traditions and heritage, cultural competency ensures that their specific needs are met with specifically designed interventions rather than a “one-size-fits-all” approach.

Respecting and understanding differences among people, allows for more effective and efficient health services for everyone. After all, as affirmed by the late, great Nelson Mandela, “If you talk to a man in a language he understands, that goes to his head. If you talk to him in his language that goes to his heart.”

Gaafar Uherbelau is a social marketer for the Palau Ministry of Health and is currently studying Social Sciences for Public Health at the University of Auckland, New Zealand. Send feedback to

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