Cultural Relativism in the Medical Practice

Written by on March 2, 2012 in Practice tips - No comments

By Cathy Warschaw, Director of the Warcshaw Institute

When should you implement diversity training into your practice? The answer is sooner than later but, sadly, this is rarely addressed until there is reason to. If you and your staff have not had some form of diversity training you are missing a crucial element in your ability to provide superior customer service to your patients. Diversity training is also important in establishing good employee relations among your staff.

Although your entire office should be trained in diversity, it is paramount for your front office to be well versed in the cultural differences of your patients; they answer your phones and are often the first face that your patients see when they come to your practice. Your front office staff also manages the administrative duties of your practice including scheduling, finances and patient information; therefore they should understand how to effectively communicate with all of your patients, regardless of their cultural distinction.

How important is diversity training?

Diversity training is often misunderstood by instructors who do not realize the extent of what should be covered. Proper training will discuss the following areas:

  • culture
  • religion
  • race
  • ethnic
  • sexual orientation
  • gender
  • disabilities

These are all important factors in maintaining quality care to your patients and good communication is necessary to achieve them. You may not think that you have ever had an issue with these subjects or you may feel as though your practice does not need to address these topics, however, as a medical you will deal with all of these areas at some point. As health care professionals we interact with a diverse population and have vowed to assist everyone that needs treatment. Understanding other cultures will provide a more positive experience for every patient. For example, a person who rejects treatment or will not take certain medications may do so because of their culture or religion. Knowing the reason why an individual rejects treatment, will allow you to change your approach, leading to better quality care.

How will diversity training positively impact my practice?

Do you think that diversity training (or a lack of) affect the reputation of your office? If you answered yes, you are 100 percent correct. If your staff poorly communicates with patients because of language barriers, lacks respect for cultures or religions that are not their own, or treats people of other races and sexual orientation differently it will lead to poor customer service and bad word of mouth. The health care community may seem large, but bad news travels quickly through it and if your staff is rude and disrespectful, everyone will soon know. The small amount of time and money it takes to properly train your staff will pay off in the end. Utilizing diversity training can also assist you in dealing with employee confrontations and how to avoid a hostile work environment. If your staff does not show respect for one another, your patients will notice and makes them uncomfortable.

Where do you begin?

The first hurdle in providing diversity training to your staff is deciding where to begin. If you work in a hospital or larger medical facility, training is usually set up by a human resource department. If you are a smaller practice, the responsibility will fall on the doctor or office manager to provide instruction. It may be best to get outside instruction from vendors that specialize in this sort of training. Organizations that provide diversity training can be found on the Internet or through recommendations from other practices. Online training is a convenient option for offices that allows classes to be arranged around the practice’s schedule to prevent having to close the office. When selecting a training program remember that the instruction should include cover all aspects of diversity and help you make the necessary changes to accommodate the different cultures you may encounter. A great recommendation is the Warschaw Learning Institute; they will be offering diversity webinars beginning in March 2012.

Making necessary changes

Upon completion of your diversity training program, it is important to set standards and guidelines of what is now expected. Look into your patients’ profiles and decide if you need to make changes to accommodate any of your patients. Perhaps you have several Spanish speaking patients and you are experiencing a breakdown in communication with them.  If you have not already, you should hire new staff members that speak Spanish and/or provide brochures and literature in Spanish. Studying the demographics of the areas around your practice is extremely important and can assist you in providing quality care to everyone that enters your practice for treatment. Diversity training is not just taking a course, and although training will provide you with the tools, it needs to be maintained and reviewed in your practice as situations may occur. Discussing possible scenarios or role playing is a good way to continue with your training and can be done periodically at staff meetings.

In the end, your practice will become more successful by knowing and respecting your patients and fellow team members. Diversity is a touchy subject for some people and not everyone is open to discussing things that may make them feel uncomfortable. However, everyone working in health care should be open-minded and respectful even when in situations that put us outside of our comfort zones. Diversity training is not about asking you to forget about what you believe in, it is about cultural relativism – respecting beliefs other than our own. It is also about breaking communication barriers so that your patients leave your office understanding what they have been told about their treatment. Do not settle with just getting by and waiting until you fall upon a situation to address diversity.

Cathy Warschaw
is the Director of the Warschaw Learning Institute. She has participated in hotel management overseas, owned an international restaurant, supported and worked on the boards of a number of multi-cultural organizations. Cathy is also the  Director of the Dental Management Club a unique membership site for dentists and dental team members worldwide. To find out more about the Warschaw Learning Institute’s cultural diversity training programs go to:

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