I used to hate going to the dentist. I disliked the smell of the office. I disliked the aftertaste of the fluoride and gritty toothpaste. Most of all, I disliked my dentist. I thought he was too rough on my mouth and not very friendly. My parents, on the other hand, loved him. His office was close to our house, he accepted Medicaid, and best of all, he was Vietnamese.
The office staff had several Vietnamese employees, which my parents were thrilled to learn about. Whenever my mom had a question, she wouldn’t hesitate to ask the front desk receptionist—something that would have never happened at the doctor’s office, with an all English-speaking staff.
My parents appreciated being able to ask questions about the cost of care and my oral health, and didn’t feel like they had to hold back on any concerns because of communication barriers. Meanwhile, at the doctor’s office, with their limited English skills, they did not feel comfortable engaging in any conversations. I often served as their interpreter.
As we work to improve health outcomes, CCMU is hearing more and more about “cultural responsiveness” as a strategy to improve quality and to address racial and ethnic disparities. Culturally-responsive medical and other health care professionals are able to gain the trust and increase the comfort of their patients. This plays a role in patients’ compliance with medical advice and treatment, as well as their interest in and understanding of healthy behaviors and wellness (PDF).
Creating a diverse health care workforce, one that is representative of the patient population, is one step toward increasing cultural responsiveness in the health care system. The Caring for Colorado Foundation is working on this issue locally as part of its Health Care Workforce ten-year vision; nationally, Health and Human Services is moving forward with its Action Plan to Reduce Racial and Ethnic Health Disparities (PDF), which calls for trainings and technical assistance to build cultural responsiveness among the health care workforce. The health sector is not always able to hire more professionals to represent the diverse cultures of the patient population, though. Health care professionals don’t need to have the same background as their patients to deliver quality care, but they should continuously strive to increase their understanding and respect for their patient’s needs and values when delivering health care—and that is an ongoing learning process.
Many years have passed since I had to serve as an interpreter for my parents. They have acquired a larger English vocabulary and are better able to navigate the health care system, although they sometimes still come to my siblings and me with questions. With an increased emphasis on cultural responsiveness, I am optimistic that someday soon my parents, and others like them, will be able to feel just as comfortable accessing care at a doctor’s office as they were so many years ago at our dentist’s office.