Cultural competence is key to meeting the needs of every patient and begins with the desire to learn. For me, that desire grew as I met with a mother and father — whose language and culture I knew little about — for their first WIC appointment with their newborn.
When I asked how breast-feeding was going, tears began rolling down the mother’s face as she cradled her newborn infant. As I waited on the response of the interpreter to translate the situation, an evident barrier echoed between myself and the client. Beyond my inability to relate through language, I felt a heavier disconnect with the client and the root of her emotional response. When the appointment ended, the interpreter explained that the mother’s gestational diabetes had developed into Type 2 diabetes, which often is viewed as a death sentence and left untreated in the client’s home country. The mother feared she would not live to see her baby girl grow up and further feared that she was harming her infant by breast-feeding. After this incident, I yearned to better understand how cultural beliefs and perspectives impact lifestyle choices.
Through my dietetic internship I have learned how cultural competence is a process that develops over time and improves with each exposure to a culture that differs from our own. The foundation of cultural competence is grounded with our expression of compassion and empathy. As healthcare providers, we must embody these qualities and value diversity to meet and acknowledge the needs of every patient.
Working alongside an interpreter allowed me to ask questions to gain insight, and I learned through experience that it is OK to express interest in learning and understanding. Showing interest in cultural practices helps the patient feel understood and respected. By respectfully inquiring about a practice or the rationale behind a cultural belief, we can improve the quality of our education. While I have come across views and practices I may not agree with, I am accepting if these views or practices are not directly causing harm. Passing judgment or holding on to preconceived notions fuels resistance, whereas being receptive to information opens doors and builds rapport. Simply put, cultural competence begins with the desire to learn, so don’t let fear of misunderstanding hold you back.