The Importance of Cultural Competence and Diversity in Medicine

In such a diverse modern age, it’s hard to believe we still struggle to achieve cultural competence. Yet, unlike in other professions, where diversity is simply a social concern, in the medical field, it is a matter of health and well-being.
The only way we can provide adequate care to patients of all backgrounds is to educate ourselves on different cultures and health issues, both through training and exposure, and to make sure the student population reflects the diversity of the population as a whole.
Here are a few ways the medical profession continues to strive towards cultural competence, from physicians and students, to medical institutions.

Cultural competence starts in medical school

Learning to address the diverse needs of patients begins not in the hospital room, but in the classroom. According to the International Journal of Medical Education, “Medical schools should be the primary agents of change by taking the necessary steps in their institutional setup, curriculum development, and delivery of medical education.”
Thus, it’s crucial medical schools begin to admit students from all backgrounds who can relate, empathize, and identify with diverse patients on a professional and personal level. This will contribute to a more diverse physician community, which will in turn encourage more minority students to pursue their medical dreams. It’s also important that the curriculum incorporate cultural competence requirements and that medical professors be trained accordingly.

Medical professionals are advocating for diversity

Minority physicians experience firsthand the damaging effects of discrimination in their field. With racial tensions running high after the recent U.S. election, many are coming forward to emphasize the growing need for cultural competence. In the recent March for Science event in Boston, Dr. Altaf Saadi, a woman and a Muslim, states:
“Views that discount the importance of diversity and inclusion also run counter to numerous scientific studies showing that having a diverse range of ideas and perspectives breeds innovation and discovery. We are stronger, smarter, and more innovative when we open our doors to those from different backgrounds and beliefs.”
Medical professionals have also rallied together to form an initiative called Tour for Diversity. A team of black and Latino medical professionals travel to various colleges around the country, talking to students about how to navigate the world of medicine as a minority physician. Some of their findings include:
“Research has repeatedly found that underrepresented minorities are more likely to follow medical recommendations when doctors look like them. In addition, according to STAT News, a diverse medical workforce also improves care for traditionally underserved sectors of the population, such as the elderly, those living in rural areas, and minority groups. 

Minority students are being the change

Perhaps even more powerful than changing curriculums and physician advocacy are the minority students themselves. They offer a unique perspective and sense of comfort and camaraderie that those in higher positions cannot. Every year, 1800 pre-medical and medical students attend the Student National Medical Associations’s Medical Education Conference in Atlanta.
Northwestern is one of these schools, whose students are very passionate about taking the medical profession to the next level of cultural competence. The greatest gift they give to their students is not knowledge but empowerment, facilitating an environment in which minority students can thrive, reach out, and be the change they wish to see in the medical world:
“As a leading academic medical center, we value the strength of a diverse environment where the best talent, best ideas and most inclusive care can be best facilitated by a Northwestern community that reflects the diversity of our world and is open to diverse points of view,” Yancy said. “The students we engage from SNMA are our future leaders, practitioners and investigators. We can’t afford to miss our opportunities for excellence.”
A recent African American graduate of John Hopkins University articulates this her desire to take an active role in bringing about change in her profession—not only does she seek to be understood as a minority, but also to understand those who come from a different background than her: “I want to be aware of different traditions and customs, and provide culturally competent care, so we can be one step closer to ensuring that all Americans have positive health outcomes, no matter the race, gender, or socioeconomic status.”