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How Cross-Cultural Sensitivity Leads to a Better Healthcare Experience

March 5, 2018

Remember the golden rule?

Treat others the way that you want to be treated.

It’s a good rule, but a better one might be: “Treat others the way that they want to be treated.”

We all have different backgrounds, cultures, and experiences. The way that we want to be treated might not be what someone of a different background would expect or want.

To really promote a healthy, productive work environment, politeness is always a good start, but really looking at cross-cultural sensitivity and making that part of the company culture is an even better place to end.

This is especially true for healthcare professionals.

Healthcare is something that we all need at some point in our lives. So, when we receive healthcare, we should all have the opportunity to feel respected and properly cared for as individuals.

Here are a few tips for making cross-cultural sensitivity and respect part of the company culture so that patients and peers alike have a better healthcare experience.

Understand Cultural Identity

For some people, cultural identity isn’t important to them at all, but for others, it is vital to their sense of self. Of course, many people fall somewhere between those two extremes.

Different cultures have different expectations for what is polite. Culture isn’t always tied to race or country of origin, either. Families have cultures that develop over generations that draw from a variety of sources.

With culture and cultural identity being so difficult to pin down, how can you possibly understand it for every person you interact with?

By listening and observing. When you speak with a patient or a co-worker, listen to things that they say. Watch what they do.

If you visit someone’s home, see if they slip off their shoes as they come in. Perhaps their culture doesn’t appreciate shoes in the house. Likewise if their shoes stay on their feet, yours probably should too even if that’s not how you behave at home.

Observation and active listening fosters respect for the cultural identities of others.

Avoid Stereotypes

Observing and listening doesn’t mean stereotyping the people you work with or care for.

Stereotypes involve making assumptions about people based on superficial information like skin color or accent.

They are often harmful, and don’t show respect for the person as an individual. Cross-cultural sensitivity in the workplace is about respecting others as individuals with different backgrounds, not people with a generic background.

Human minds are wired to project stereotypes because it saves energy on actually thinking about every person we meet as an individual. That’s just our brains being lazy.

We can’t completely stop ourselves from thinking in stereotypes, but we can cultivate awareness of how and when those stereotypes pop up in our heads. We can actively work to keep them from influencing our thoughts and our treatment of others.

Stay Away from the Victim Mentality

If someone mentions how completely awful a certain shade of orange is and you happen to be wearing a shirt of that color, do you immediately get offended?

Or if someone mentions that they think classical music is a total snoozefest and you spend hours every weekend listening to Bach because you find it exciting, do you take that personally?

Hopefully not. In both of those hypothetical situations, there’s no indication that the other person was deliberately trying to hurt you or even aware that what they were saying could be hurtful.

Instead of assuming that everyone is out to pick at our sense of self, we can step back and understand that it’s probably ignorance talking. Instead of getting defensive about whatever was said, we can calmly inform the other person that what they said was insensitive.

The idea isn’t to be a doormat, but to understand that not every comment directed to us is personal.

We need to have a trusting mindset when we speak with others. If we walk into every conversation expecting to be attacked, it’s harder for us to respect and work with the people around us.


When seeking healthcare, people want and expect to be treated with respect. When going to work, they want the same thing.

By focusing on cross-cultural sensitivity and respect in the workplace to make it a part of the company culture, we can create a better experience for our peers and patients.


This post is based on a podcast interview with Lisa DeRoche, VP of Human Resources at Brightpoint Health. To hear this episode, and many more like it, you can subscribe to Healthcare Simplified.

If you don’t use iTunes, you can listen to every episode here.


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