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The Difference Between Cultural Sensitivity and Cultural Competence

A nurse—or anyone else for that matter—who understands that differences exist in the way people think, talk and act from different cultures shows cultural sensitivity.

     This means that a nurse can treat the person’s illness the same way she would treat any other person’s similar illness, but must keep in mind that how she goes about that treatment may need different nuances or explanations of procedures for a person from a different culture than she normally handles.  This leads to cultural competence, a concept specific to nursing care.  It means that the nurse fully takes into account the patient’s culture and how it may affect the way the person views medical treatment. 
     The nurse also must seek to find her own cultural values and make comparisons of the two in an attempt to empathize with and more clearly explain what the treatment and care plan entail for the specific patient.
Because nurses cannot possibly know all the details of every single patient’s cultural background, they can gain a lot of ground by simply asking questions of the patient.  For example, recently a man from a particular culture at my residential health care facility did not want to be bathed by a woman for religious or cultural reasons.  Instead of simply assuming that a patient should be bathed the same way as all other patients, the nurse should, during the initial assessment, ask the patient specific and open-ended questions about procedures such as bathing to find out how the person wishes to be treated. 
     The answers to these questions should be detailed in the patient’s records and notes about special considerations should be attached so that any nurse or aide can be aware of these preferences.  In the case of this patient, we had to deduce why the man became upset and refused to be bathed.  Had the admitting nurse asked specific questions about his cultural background, we would have known the patient’s preference and handled the situation differently.
     Nurses and other medical professionals can develop cultural competence simply by curiosity and asking questions of their patients before they just go ahead and act based upon prior experience.  Patients generally will be willing to talk about their cultures and personal preferences.  In doing so, the patients can get a feeling that the nurses do care about respecting different cultures.  This may help patients comply with care plans and participate in their own treatment.

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