Understanding Cultural Competency: Definitions and Concepts

Adapted from: U.S. Department of Health and Human Services; National Institutes of Health (NIH); and the Center for Effective Collaboration and Practice (CECP)

What is cultural competency?

Culture has been defined as:

  • An integrated pattern of learned beliefs, values and behaviors that can be shared among groups
  • Elements of cultural competency: personal identification, language, thoughts, communications, actions, customs, beliefs, values, and institutions that are often specific to ethnic, racial, religious, geographic, or social groups

Cultural competency has been defined as:

  • A set of congruent behaviors, attitudes, and policies that come together in a system, agency, or among professionals and enables that system, agency, or those professionals to work effectively in cross-cultural situations
  • Operationally, cultural competence in health care has been defined as the integration and transformation of knowledge about individuals and groups of people into specific standards, policies, practices, and attitudes used in appropriate cultural settings to increase the quality of health care

Cultural competency as a process

  • “Ongoing process involving the integration of cultural awareness, cultural knowledge, cultural skill, cultural encounters, and cultural desire”
  • The process requires individuals to be motivated to make a commitment to engage in continuing self-study and taking the initiative to respectfully interact with people of various cultural groups

Importance of cultural competency

  • Enables systems, agencies, and groups of professionals to function effectively to understand the needs of groups accessing health information and health care or participating in research in an inclusive partnership where the provider and the user of the information meet on common ground

 How cultural competency makes a difference

  • Benefits consumers, stakeholders, and communities and supports positive health outcomes
  • Influences health communication
  • Helps achieving accuracy in medical research

What are the elements contributing to a system’s cultural competency?

  • Valuing diversity
  • Having the capacity for cultural self-assessment
  • Being conscious of the dynamics inherent when cultures interact
  • Having institutionalized culture knowledge
  • Having developed adaptations to service delivery reflecting an understanding of cultural diversity 

Cultural competency in ACTION:  Steps to start your journey!

Each series feature will include information to help you:

  • Reflect upon the information and how it applies to you and your personal and professional environment
  • Explore your historical roots, values and beliefs
  • Think about your day-to-day work activities. What are some of the major challenges you encounter when working with various cultural groups?
  • Think about all the aspects of culture. Do you feel comfortable discussing issues related to culture with participants and/or colleagues in your department?
  • Can you think of a culturally sensitive or culturally insensitive situation and/or interaction you have recently been involved in or witnessed?  What factors contributed to how this situation or interaction was handled?
  • Commit to self- education: This month, read at least 3 of the resources related to cultural competency

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