More on Patient Engagement

Cultural competency crucial to patient engagement, bridging communication gap in hospitals, expert says

There is often a cultural gap between doctors and patients that can negatively impact patient outcomes, Harvard Business Review article says.

Beth Jones Sanborn, Managing Editor

According to a commentary posted in Harvard Business Review, hospitals can boost outcomes and patient engagement through improved cultural competency, that is, the ability to successfully relate to and engage patients from minority communities.

Olympia Duhart, a law professor at Nova Southeastern University whose scholarship has focused on government accountability for historically marginalized groups, wrote that there is often a cultural gap between doctors and patients that can negatively impact patient outcomes. In addition to recruiting a more diverse workforce that better reflects the community they serve, healthcare organizations can and should implement cultural competency training to change attitudes, beliefs and practices which will help improve clinicians ability to serve the needs of patient effectively.

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Duhart focused on three specific areas. First, hospitals must find ways to address, and where possible, eliminate language barriers. According to a American Community Survey cited, one in five americans speak a language other than English at home. This can complicate a medical situation, especially when a bilingual friend or family member who steps in to interpret is medically inexperienced. Professionals needs to be educated on the limitations these good-intentioned helpers present.

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In taking steps to reduce risks created by language barriers, hospitals can train staff on how to identify patients with limited english-speaking skills and use "plain language" to communicate directives. Clinicians could also use models, drawings, and devices to get their point across. Finally, healthcare organizations must ensure that their bilingual information actually reflects the language needs of the community.

Next, Duhart cautions that the combination of implicit bias and mental health issues can have serious consequences in healthcare. Access to proper care is a particular challenge for communities of color, as Duhart cited data that said African-American, Hispanic and Asian adults are 35 percent less likely than whites to get mental health treatment because of challenges with access to care.

[Also: Generational divides influence doctor-patient relationships, patient engagement, study says]

"Proactive steps are needed to build a team of culturally competent professionals who can screen and treat mental health disorders among low-income individuals and people of color, two groups that have consistently shown disparities in mental health treatment," Duhart wrote.

Finally, Duhart wrote that when patients feel they are at risk of confirming negative stereotypes about their social identity they are far more likely to skip appointments or not seek treatment at all. Providers can enable patient engagement and assuage anxiety by having candid discussions about what can be does to ease patient stress, like suggesting they bring a friend to an appointment or offering to write down complicated information or instructions. Even a simple but open and up-front discussion about the anxiety that others in their community feel about healthcare treatment can go a long way to bridging the gap between minority patients and their clinicians.

"As medical professionals strive to improve health care delivery for patients, they should explore policies and practices that enhance treatment for people from different communities. Improved cultural competency enhances patient satisfaction and compliance," Duhart wrote.

Twitter: @BethJSanborn