The Importance of Cultural Competence in Bedside Medicine

Photo by Steve Fisch.

At Stanford Medicine 25, we have long discussed the importance of providing quality, compassionate care at the bedside. This relies not only on a physician’s medical knowledge, technical skills and compassionate demeanor, but also on respect for a patient’s cultural, racial and ethnic background. This sensitivity affects day-to-day patient interactions. In addition, it can improve health outcomes and make an impact on the broader picture of health equity.

Why Cultural and Diversity Competence Matter in Healthcare

Culturally competent care, as defined by the Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality, is “care that respects diversity in the patient population and cultural factors that can affect health and health care, such as language, communication styles, beliefs, attitudes and behaviors.” It’s key to note that cultural competence, which is generally associated with race and ethnicity, goes hand-in-hand with diversity competence, which also considers people with disabilities and individuals who identify as LGBTQ. For physicians and healthcare providers, being sensitive to a patient’s complex personal story plays a major role in providing effective, person-centered care.

According to Tulane University, race, socioeconomics and health literacy can influence how individuals experience healthcare. These factors can affect how patients perceive symptoms and health, when and how to seek care, treatment preferences and adherence to medical plans.

When physicians are culturally competent, they are better equipped to engage patients and develop trusting relationships, which can streamline healthcare delivery, optimize the patient experience and improve safety.

How Physicians Can Improve Their Cultural Competence

Although improving cultural competence is a complex and continual learning process, physicians can build a foundation by:

·       refining awareness of their own personal beliefs and culture, which provides a base to strengthen cross-cultural awareness;

·       participating in training that boosts intercultural communication skills and responses to cultural differences; and

·       studying and engaging with their local community.


Stanford Medicine continues to explore practices that improve patient-physician communication while dismantling barriers to care. For example, the Presence 5 for Racial Justice project focuses on equipping physicians with communication tools that address anti-Black racism and empower Black individuals in their care. The program emphasizes the importance of:

·      preparing for appointments by reviewing the patient’s background;

·      carefully listening to the patient and avoiding interruptions;

·      seeking to understand the patient’s story;

·      eliminating language that reflects preconceptions about minority groups; and

·      tuning into emotional cues, body language and expressions.


For more information about Stanford Medicine’s diversity and inclusion efforts, please visit here.

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