While ethnic disparities in health and health care are increasing, evidence on how to enhance quality of care and reduce inequalities remains limited. Despite growth in the scope and application of guidelines on “cultural competence,” remarkably little is known about how practising health professionals experience and perceive their work with patients from diverse ethnic communities. Using cancer care as a clinical context, we aimed to explore this with a range of health professionals to inform interventions to enhance quality of care.
Methods and Findings
We conducted a qualitative study involving 18 focus groups with a purposeful sample of 106 health professionals of differing disciplines, in primary and secondary care settings, working with patient populations of varying ethnic diversity in the Midlands of the UK. Data were analysed by constant comparison and we undertook processes for validation of analysis. We found that, as they sought to offer appropriate care, health professionals wrestled with considerable uncertainty and apprehension in responding to the needs of patients of ethnicities different from their own. They emphasised their perceived ignorance about cultural difference and were anxious about being culturally inappropriate, causing affront, or appearing discriminatory or racist. Professionals' ability to think and act flexibly or creatively faltered. Although trying to do their best, professionals' uncertainty was disempowering, creating a disabling hesitancy and inertia in their practice. Most professionals sought and applied a knowledge-based cultural expertise approach to patients, though some identified the risk of engendering stereotypical expectations of patients. Professionals' uncertainty and disempowerment had the potential to perpetuate each other, to the detriment of patient care.
This study suggests potential mechanisms by which health professionals may inadvertently contribute to ethnic disparities in health care. It identifies critical opportunities to empower health professionals to respond more effectively. Interventions should help professionals acknowledge their uncertainty and its potential to create inertia in their practice. A shift away from a cultural expertise model toward a greater focus on each patient as an individual may help.
From a qualitative study, Joe Kai and colleagues have identified opportunities to empower health professionals to respond more effectively to challenges in their work with patients from diverse ethnic communities.
Communities are increasingly diverse in terms of ethnicity (belonging to a group of people defined by social characteristics such as cultural tradition or national origin) and race (belonging to a group identified by inherited physical characteristics). Although health professionals and governments are striving to ensure that everybody has the same access to health care, there is increasing evidence of ethnic inequalities in health-care outcomes. Some of these inequalities reflect intrinsic differences between groups of people—Ashkenazi Jews, for example, often carry an altered gene that increases their chance of developing aggressive breast cancer. Often, however, these differences reflect inequalities in the health care received by different ethnic groups. To improve this situation, “cultural competence” has been promoted over recent years. Cultural competence is the development of skills by individuals and organizations that allow them to work effectively with people from different cultures. Health professionals are now taught about ethnic differences in health beliefs and practices, religion, and communication styles to help them provide the best service to all their patients.
Why Was This Study Done?
Numerous guidelines aim to improve cultural competency but little is known about how health professionals experience and perceive their work with patients from diverse ethnic groups. Is their behavior influenced by ethnicity in ways that might contribute to health care disparities? For example, do doctors sometimes avoid medical examinations for fear of causing offence because of cultural differences? If more were known about how health professionals handle ethnic diversity (a term used here to include both ethnicity and race) it might be possible to reduce ethnic inequalities in health care. In this qualitative study, the researchers have explored how health professionals involved in cancer care are affected by working with ethnically diverse patients. A qualitative study is one that collects nonquantitative data such as how doctors “feel” about treating people of different ethnic backgrounds; a quantitative study might compare clinical outcomes in different ethnic groups.
What Did the Researchers Do and Find?
The researchers enrolled 106 doctors, nurses, and other health-related professionals from different health-service settings in the Midlands, an ethnically diverse region of the UK. They organized 18 focus groups in which the health professionals described their experiences of caring for people from ethnic minority backgrounds. The participants were encouraged to recall actual cases and to identify what they saw as problems and strengths in their interactions with these patients. The researchers found that the health professionals wrestled with many challenges when providing health care for patients from diverse ethnic backgrounds. These challenges included problems with language and with general communication (for example, deciding when it was acceptable to touch a patient to show empathy). Health professionals also worried they did not know enough about cultural differences. As a result, they said they often felt uncertain of their ability to avoid causing affront or appearing racist. This uncertainty, the researchers report, disempowered the health professionals, sometimes making them hesitate or fail to do what was best for their patient.
What Do These Findings Mean?
These findings reveal that health professionals often experience considerable uncertainty when caring for ethnically diverse patients, even after training in cultural competency. They also show that this uncertainty can lead to hesitancy and inertia, which might contribute to ethnic health care inequalities. Because the study participants were probably already interested in ethnic diversity and health care, interviews with other health professionals (and investigations of patient experiences) are needed to confirm these findings. Nevertheless, the researchers suggest several interventions that might reduce health care inequalities caused by ethnic diversity. For example, health professionals should be encouraged to recognize their uncertainty and should have access to more information and training about ethnic differences. In addition, there should be a shift in emphasis away from relying on knowledge-based cultural information towards taking an “ethnographic” approach. In other words, health professionals should be helped to feel able to ask their patients about what matters most to them as individuals about their illness and treatment.
Please access these Web sites via the online version of this summary at http://dx.doi.org/10.1371/journal.pmed.0040323.
Information on cultural competence and health care is available from the US National Center for Cultural Competence (in English and Spanish) and DiversityRx
PROCEED (Professionals Responding to Cancer in Ethnic Diversity) is a multimedia training tool for educators within the health and allied professions developed from the results of this study; a press release on PROCEED is available from the University of Nottingham
Transcultural Health Care Practice: An educational resource for nurses and health care practitioners is available on the web site of the UK Royal College of Nursing