When treating hundreds of different people each week, it is reasonable to expect nurses to treat patients from a variety of backgrounds. Therefore, nurses must be ready to apply some cultural sensitivity and competence in their work. Developing cultural competence takes time and practical experience. However, nursing students will learn what cultural competence is and how to develop it while studying for their BSNs and other degrees.

But what exactly is cultural competence, why is it so important in nursing and healthcare, and how do nursing students learn about it as part of degree modules and training? Let’s take a look at how nurses can become more culturally competent and how universities, colleges, and tutors can support this growth.

What is cultural competence? 

Cultural competence refers to one’s ability to communicate effectively with people from diverse cultural backgrounds. That includes understanding, respecting, and valuing the cultural similarities and differences between various individuals of different upbringings.

For example, some nurses raised as American Christians might treat patients raised abroad as part of Muslim, Jewish, or Hindu households. In order for them to uphold the ethics that are so important to the core of nursing, practitioners must be willing and able to treat all patients with the same dignity and support regardless of their backgrounds. Cultural competence is important beyond healthcare, too, as educators, business owners, and public service providers all benefit from treating people with the same cultural dignity and respect.

Why is cultural competence so important in nursing? 

Beyond treating people with cultural sensitivity simply being the appropriate, ethical thing to do, there are several further reasons why nurses study diversity training. Let’s consider a few.

Patient outcomes improve

The best patient outcomes arise from care tailored to a patient’s individual needs and preferences. Cultural competence means understanding and respecting different values, beliefs, and practices.

That, in turn, leads to clearer communication, increased trust, and better patient engagement, which will inevitably lead to improved patient care and outcomes. Communicating clearly is vital in patient care.

Patient satisfaction improves

Everyone wants to be heard and understood. No patient can be truly happy if they feel disrespected, unappreciated, or ignored. However, by showing that they appreciate, understand, and respect patients—and are willing to listen to any concerns or comments they may have, nurses can dramatically improve patient satisfaction. The happier the patient, the more communicative and cooperative they are—meaning everyone benefits from cultural competence.

Misdiagnoses decrease

People across different cultures may express pain and discuss symptoms differently—and these differences can easily lead to misdiagnosis if healthcare providers do not have the cultural competence required to adjust their care for each patient. Cultural competence, therefore, enables nurses to adjust their care to individual people so they receive accurate diagnoses and the treatments they require to get back to full health.

Ethical and legal problems are avoided

Failing to show cultural competence can lead to ethical and legal challenges for both individual healthcare providers and entire healthcare organizations. That is why more and more healthcare organizations are establishing standards and guidelines that support and focus on cultural competence. Moreover, failing to properly care for someone based on cultural prejudices and biases will lead to serious ethical concerns about the care provided and the healthcare provider(s) in question. Treating all patients with equal respect and standards of care is simply the ethically right thing to do.

How can nurses learn about cultural competence? 

Even the most open-minded, well-rounded, and worldly people may not be completely culturally competent. Thankfully, cultural competence is not something leaders will expect nurses to show expertise in right away. As mentioned earlier, cultural competence is developed with time and experience, and nurses will all learn at different paces.

However, it’s now common for nursing students to learn about the importance of exercising cultural competence as part of their degrees. For example, many BSN programs will help students understand how to treat specific cases and how to keep an ethically open mind.

The same applies to nurses studying further education courses, too. For example, those taking on an Online Master’s in Nursing Education at an accredited institution such as Cleveland State University will learn how to apply cultural competence modules as part of a broader student curriculum. CSU’s course includes a specific module that enables educator students to practice developing learning plans based on cultural competence. The Curriculum Development in Nursing module also helps students to consider further ethical and social factors that can come into play for the people they help to graduate.

Nurses taking on this particular course will likely have considerable experience in treating patients and following cultural competence in real-life situations. Regardless, they can still learn more about how to apply these principles when creating new courses and learning plans.

Let’s take a look at a few other ways students can learn about cultural competence, and how they can practice it before they enter the workforce.

Practice self-assessment and reflection

The first thing any nurse can do to help better their cultural competence is by self-assessing and self-reflecting.

When embarking on their studies, nurses should ask themselves questions such as:

  • What is my cultural identity?
  • How is it different from those around me?
  • What assumptions do I make about other cultures and cultural identities?
  • How comfortable am I dealing with people from varied cultural backgrounds?
  • Do I ask inappropriate questions to people of different cultural backgrounds?
  • How do I deal with the intolerance I see around me?

Taking the time to get to know themselves a little better and face some hard truths is key to learning to be more culturally competent. Nurses will not be able to address any downfalls they may have if they are not first willing to face them. Nursing curriculums will provide frameworks for students to explore their own internal cultural perceptions and even prejudices.

Learn how to communicate with people from different cultures 

People from different cultures, religions, faiths, etc., will not all necessarily communicate in the same way. Some may not be as comfortable talking overtly about their bodies, for example, while others might not know how to process current health situations and how to discuss them with caregivers.

Degree modules frequently provide students with exercises to practice approaching people from a variety of cultural backgrounds. There will also be regular opportunities to learn about specific cultures, though these will be handled with sensitivity and from an unbiased perspective. Learning how to communicate appropriately with patients from different cultures is essential in improving patient outcomes.

Build cultural knowledge and appreciate diversity

One of the best ways to learn more about how to communicate with various people is by learning more about other cultures. As our society becomes increasingly multicultural, it’s important to learn as much about different backgrounds and beliefs as possible. This will help nurses learn more about how different people expect to be treated and spoken to, and what they need from their nurses and caregivers. As mentioned, some degree modules may present example cases where students learn about how to treat specific cases and conditions in line with common cultural differences.

Address ethical considerations and cultural care 

In some cases, ethics and cultural expectations do not match up. There are sometimes occasions when nurses need to act for the sake of a patient’s health, but the required treatment does not align with the patient’s ethical, cultural, or moral beliefs. Of course, nurses must put their patients’ health and well-being above all else. But they must be prepared for when ethical and potential legal issues may arise.

Thankfully, through their education, nurses will learn more about approaching such difficult situations and remaining ethical while being as culturally sensitive as possible. In some cases, there will be no “right answer”. Nurses have to trust their interpretation of ethical principles while being as culturally sensitive as possible.

Explore case studies and participate in role-plays 

A great way for nurses to practice cultural competence during their education is by looking into specific case studies, applying their knowledge and understanding, and seeing how it compares to what actually occurred in practice. Nursing educators might share cases of their own with students, albeit with anonymous names to protect the identities of the patients they’ve cared for. Real-life case studies prove highly useful in demonstrating to nursing students what cultural dilemmas might look like in practice.

Students will also frequently participate in role-plays during their studies to test their cultural competence in safe settings that do not risk serious consequences. Taking the time to role-play various situations with fellow nursing students, or even asking professors for feedback and advice can help a great deal in showing where nurses can improve and which mistakes, if any, they should avoid repeating. Role play doesn’t necessarily represent how real cases will transpire, however. They simply give students opportunities to explore their skills and practice how to be more sensitive in their caregiving.

Curriculum development 

As mentioned, nurses who continue their education to become nursing leaders or educators may eventually go on to create their own curricula and learning exercises for various courses. This means they can apply their own cultural competence, their experience in the workforce, and their own ethical dilemmas to prepare students better for challenges they’re likely to face in the future. As mentioned, Cleveland State University offers an entire module dedicated to curriculum development where students can raise questions about best ethical practices and even their own methodologies.

The positive impact of cultural competence

Cultural competence education has many benefits and positive effects on healthcare practice. Here are just some of the most important benefits to consider.

Tailored nursing care

Everyone is different, and all people demand individual respect and support. Providing tailored care means patients are far more likely to have positive experiences and are more open with their caregivers. Cultural competence training helps nurses understand the individuality of each patient, meaning they’re less likely to make harmful assumptions that could cause offense or lead to a misdiagnosis.

Nurses can better connect with patients

Nursing isn’t just about treating patients. It’s also about building strong relationships with them. Without those relationships, patients are not likely to feel comfortable with their nurses and are therefore less likely to talk openly with them about their health. This could lead them to be less receptive when it comes to accepting treatments.

However, by being culturally competent, nurses can show any of their patients that they are respectful of their preferences, sensitive to their needs, and truly there to care for and help them as individuals. Building this kind of rapport is key to producing positive outcomes for patients. Rapport is everything—many people refer to it as the “bedside manner”—and without it, patients may be hesitant to cooperate.

Clearer understanding and handling of patient needs

Understanding and communication work in the favor of nurses, too. For example, a nurse attending to a patient with specific religious needs must answer questions about how their care could impede their beliefs. Understanding patient needs means more than simply addressing physical problems. By being culturally sensitive and open, nurses can balance physical needs with spiritual and cultural understanding. They can then provide care plans and suggestions to patients having considered their beliefs and non-physical requirements.

In some cases, attending to cultural needs might not support a patient’s physical needs. For example, some people might disagree with receiving blood transfusions as part of their recovery. With cultural competence, nurses can assure patients of the necessary steps needed to bring them back to full health but that, ultimately, the care they receive will be their choice. There are some exceptions to this rule, of course, such as in cases where family members have the right to make decisions on behalf of patients.

Nurses commit to continued learning 

To ensure they remain culturally competent, nurses must engage in continuous learning. As societies grow and evolve to be more accepting, respectful, and appreciative of all different kinds of people, nurses must too. That means learning new terms, languages, manners, and ways of communicating with people from increasingly varied cultural backgrounds.

Anyone entering into nursing will know that this is a profession where learning truly never ends. Beyond the classroom or online coursework, nursing students will find that every day in the workplace provides new lessons, experiences, and learning opportunities.

What’s more, no two cases of cultural and ethical concern are ever likely to be the same. Nurses must be willing to communicate with and treat people who have a range of different beliefs at varying levels of observance.

Nurses should never expect people from different backgrounds and faiths to immediately adapt to healthcare simply because their lives are on the line. Spirituality and culture are extremely important to millions of people, and nurses must be willing to learn from their patients as much as they learn from their colleagues. It’s also a good idea for nurses to consider taking on additional education, such as through top-up courses and degrees, if they wish to explore the ethical conundrums of cultural competency in more detail.

Cultural competence is a necessity in modern healthcare and nursing

Cultural competence may sound like a difficult subject, but it doesn’t have to be. The topic ultimately boils down to being respectful, kind, and understanding of all people. It is a nurse’s duty to help all people in need, no matter who they are, where they are from, what they believe, or how they identify.

The only way for nurses to truly be able to help patients is by remaining objective. Nurses must always listen to a patient’s individual needs and beliefs and communicate care expectations and available treatments. By communicating openly with patients and building rapport, nurses will soon find it easier to approach difficult ethical issues.

Across all nursing care models, cultural competence is a vital tenet, and nurses will go far if they treat people with kindness, respect, and objectivity from the get-go. Thankfully, simply remaining open-minded and willing to continue learning means that they are already on the right track to becoming culturally competent, and better nurses for it. Degree programs will continue to provide cultural training and support to students, too, who might struggle to know what to do in practice.

If you’re considering taking on a nursing degree, it’s vital to keep an open mind. There is no room for bias or subjectivity in healthcare, regardless of your personal experience or unconscious prejudice.

By Percy