National Ethics Teleconference Cultures and Persons, Patients and Caregivers: Ethical Obligations and Culturally Competent Care August 26, 2003

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National Ethics Teleconference

Cultures and Persons, Patients and Caregivers: Ethical Obligations and Culturally Competent Care

August 26, 2003


Dr. Berkowitz:
Good day everyone. This is Ken Berkowitz. I am the Chief of the Ethics Consultation Service at the VHA National Center for Ethics in Health Care and a physician at the VA NY Harbor Healthcare System. I am very pleased to welcome you all to today's National Ethics Teleconference. By sponsoring this series of calls, the Center provides an opportunity for regular education and open discussion of important VHA ethics issues. Each call features an educational presentation on an interesting ethics topic followed by an open, moderated discussion of that topic. After the discussion, we reserve the last few minutes of each call for our 'from the field section'. This will be your opportunity to speak up and let us know what is on your mind regarding ethics related topics other than the focus of today's call.


Remember, CME credits are available for listeners of this call. To get yours go to

Ground Rules: Before we proceed with today's discussion of the ethical obligations of culturally competent care, I need to briefly review the overall ground rules for the National Ethics Teleconferences:

  • We ask that when you talk, you please begin by telling us your name, location and title so that we continue to get to know each other better. During the call, please minimize background noise and PLEASE do not put the call on hold.

  • Due to the interactive nature of these calls, and the fact that at times we deal with sensitive issues, we think it is important to make two final points:

    • First, it is not the specific role of the National Center for Ethics in Health Care to report policy violations. However, please remember that there are many participants on the line. You are speaking in an open forum and ultimately you are responsible for your own words, and

    • Lastly, please remember that these Ethics Teleconference calls are not an appropriate place to discuss specific cases or confidential information. If, during the discussions we hear people providing such information we may interrupt and ask them to make their comments more general.

Today’s presentation will cover the challenges and ethical implications of the obligation to respect patients as persons in multicultural settings. We will examine how culture affects individuals’ understanding of themselves as “persons”—both as patients and as health care professionals; common areas of divergence across cultures and their implications for health care interactions, especially end-of-life care; the ethical principle of respect for persons and what it means for clinicians’ obligations toward patients who do not share their cultural background; and different approaches to implementing the principle of respect across cultural differences.

Joining me on the call today is Dr. Bette-Jane Crigger, Chief of the Ethics Communications Service at the National Center for Ethics in Health Care. She has a joint PhD in anthropology and linguistics from the University of Chicago, and has been working in the field of health care ethics for the past 15 years.


Dr. Berkowitz:
I think the first thing to ask as we begin this discussion on culturally competent care is just what is culturally competent care? And how are the skills of providing culturally competent care different from providing clinically competent care?
Dr. Crigger:
The notion of “culturally competent care” arose out of the recognition that different cultures understand illness and healing in different ways. As Arthur Kleinman, a physician and anthropologist, put it, they have different “explanatory models.” Clinicians trained in the “biomedical” or “allopathic” model bring with them have certain understandings disease and treatment, and the role and responsibilities of a health care professional, and have been socialized to communicate with patients in certain ways—for example, by giving patients full information about their condition. But patients don’t necessarily share those understandings, especially patients who aren’t members of mainstream culture. This can lead to miscommunication and mistrust between the patient and the provider. “Culturally competent care” means clinicians recognize that patients’ beliefs might differ from their own, but should nonetheless be respected.
One of the difficulties in addressing the topic of culturally competent care is that culture is difficult to define. Setting that aside for the moment, we can list some of the attributes of cultural competence:

    • awareness & understanding: of one’s own culture and how it shapes beliefs and values, beyond values acquired in the course of professional training

    • knowledge: learning about other cultures, and about other healing traditions or practices

    • sensitivity & proficiency: appreciating the patient’s cultural values and beliefs, and taking those beliefs and values into consideration in providing clinical care

Most clinicians are aware that communicating effectively with patients is an essential component of good clinical care. When clinicians give “culturally competent care,” they understand how culture can influence the clinical encounter, and how to be sensitive to cultural differences in a way that fosters patient trust.

Unfortunately, too often the training that physicians, nurses, social workers and other caregivers receive in how to provide culturally competent care does as much to foster stereotypes about various cultures as to nurture sensitivity. Many times, clinicians are left with the impression that they can automatically apply a list of cultural traits to the patient before them in the bed. “Ah, Hispanic surname,” they think; “This patient will want his family to make decisions about his care, and not want to make them himself.” That isn’t culturally competent care, because it assumes that cultural background determines a patient’s values. But the most we can say is that cultural background informs a patient’s values.
Dr. Berkowitz:
VHA serves a more diverse population than ever before, and the VHA workforce is increasingly diverse as well, so being culturally competent and providing care that respects a patient’s culture is an important component of quality health care. The Joint Commission considers cultural competence as a measure of health care quality too. The soon-to-be-released 2004 standards include the right of each of patient “to have his or her cultural, psychosocial, spiritual, and personal values, beliefs, and preferences respected.” That is standard RI.2.10 in the pre-publication version of the standards available on the JCAHO website.
Dr. Crigger:
Other professional organizations are taking an active interest in this topic as well. In addition to the JCAHO standards, the Office of Minority Health of the Department of Health and Human Services has published draft guidelines for “culturally and linguistically appropriate services,” or CLAS. The final version will provide comprehensive national standards for cultural competence in health service delivery. The draft standards are available on the OMH website.
The American Geriatric Society is also making a substantive contribution to this effort. They are about to launch a new “Doorway Thoughts” series to guide clinicians whose older patients include members of cultural minorities. The series will address factors that culturally competent practitioners reflect on “before walking through the doorway of any examining, consultation, or hospital room.”
Dr. Berkowitz:
What about the VA? Are there any specific data about how diverse the veteran population actually is?
Dr. Crigger:
National survey data on racial and ethnic diversity in VA are poor proxies for data on cultural diversity, but according to the 2001 National Survey of Veterans (the most recent data we have), the great majority of veterans, just under 85%, identify themselves as “white.” Blacks account for approximately 9% of the veteran population, Hispanics 4.5%, and Asian and Pacific Islanders and Native Americans less than 1% each. Interestingly, women veterans are likelier to classify themselves as minorities (17.1%) than are men (9%). That will change over time, of course, given increasing minority participation in the armed services,
Dr. Berkowitz:
And how diverse is the VHA workforce?
Dr. Crigger:
I’m glad you asked. We’ve tended to talk, I think, as if “culture” or “diversity” were primarily characteristics of patients, but that is rather one-sided. VHA’s workforce is in fact somewhat more diverse than it’s patient population.
As of July this year, nearly 64% of VHA’s 185,000 employees identify themselves as “white”; 24% as “black”; and about 6.4% as “Hispanic”; while persons of Asian descent account for close to 5.5% of VA’s workforce, and Native Americans just under 1%.
Thus while VA may not be the most diverse community on the planet, it is by no means a homogenous population. The possibilities that practitioners and patients will come form different racial, ethnic, and cultural backgrounds are increasing all the time, and with them the challenges of negotiating potential tensions among the ethical values and commitments that patients and health care professionals bring to their interactions.
Dr. Berkowitz:
Let me play devil’s advocate for a moment. What’s the big deal if patient and provider come from different cultural backgrounds? What’s really at stake when cultures diverge?
Dr. Crigger:
Diversity matters in health care in some very practical ways, of course. There’s that JCAHO accreditation standard, for one thing. And we know that quality of care and outcomes vary by race and ethnicity.1
Those are important considerations, but don’t yet address the fundamental ethical concerns at play in multicultural health care settings, the foremost of which is respect.
By now, “respect for autonomy” is a truism in bioethics. Professional ethical standards commit health care providers to shared decision making and respect for patients’ choices as autonomous moral agents. Health care professionals are understood to owe patients a forthright assessment of their clinical situation and prognosis, clear information about treatment alternatives, and willingness to honor their preferences as provider and patient work together to formulate a plan of care.
The foundation of respect for autonomy is respect for the patient as a person—that is, the ethical obligation to treat each individual as having dignity and moral worth him- or herself and never simply as a means to someone else’s purposes. The principle of respect means that we have a strong ethical duty to acknowledge individual dignity and allow individuals to make decisions about how they live their lives—ideally, those will be well-thought through decisions, but we have an obligation to respect even what we consider to be poorly made decisions.
All well and good. But I want to suggest that respect for the patient as a person isn’t quite as straightforward as my little description suggests. Every culture as some concept of “person,” or “self,” or “moral agent”; but just what that means can be quite different from one culture to another. And the differences can matter enormously when it comes to the relationships among patients and clinicians.
Further, the cultures from which they come set up expectations for both clinicians and patients about how each will act. And our cultures color our judgments about how they should behave in given circumstances, in ways we often don’t consciously recognize.

Dr. Berkowitz:
I think right now it might be valuable to define culture, so we’re all on the same page as our discussion continues. I know that defining culture is one of the major debates in the field of anthropology, but it would be useful if you could at least sketch out what culture is and includes.
Dr. Crigger:
For purposes of our conversation, I’ll adopt the definition of culture used in the National Ethics Committee’s 1997 report, Ethical Considerations for a Multicultural Workforce. “Culture” is:
The totality of socially transmitted behavior patterns, art, beliefs, institutions, and all other products of human work and thought characteristic of a community or population. ... Culture is reflective of, but is not limited to, nationality, citizenship, geographic location of birth, season or time of birth, language, manner of dress and bodily adornment, food restrictions or preferences, rituals, etiquette, customs, music, dance, crafts, mythology, artistic expression, and religion.
The description I gave of respecting the patient as a person, of course, rests heavily on a dominant strand of our understanding of persons in the Western tradition. “We”—those of us who, by and large, subscribe to and participate in mainstream American society—see ourselves and our lives to be importantly projects of self-creation. We’re never entirely free to create ourselves just as we choose, to be sure, but our ideal is that we become who we want to be willfully, and that we do so independently in significant measure. The image of the “self-made man” who chooses a course of action based on reason is very much at the heart of the principle respect for autonomy in contemporary health care ethics.
Elsewhere, however, “selves” are made as much by families, by lineages and clans or other complex ties of kinship, or apprenticeship, or other affiliation as they are by individual will and action. Elsewhere, to imagine “oneself” as standing separate from others in seeking and receiving care, in being solitary as a patient, may be a well nigh impossible “thought experiment.” Or it may be morally distasteful, or seen as disrespectful of those to whom one is bound by ties of birth, marriage, community, or personal debt or duty.
Moreover, beyond culture as we’ve just defined it, the process of becoming a health care professional sets up expectations that can pose challenges to effective, ethically appropriate relationships with patients. Clinical techniques and medical technologies are all in a day’s work for practitioners, part of the routine of their work-a-day life. Not so for patients; not even, necessarily, for patients with chronic illnesses who interact regularly with practitioners.2 Not least because the stakes are different for patients and providers.
Dr. Berkowitz:
Given that every medical professional is going to have encounters with patients of different cultural beliefs, what should the clinician do? How do we respond to these cultural differences?
Dr. Crigger:
Health care professionals’ obligation to “respect the patient as a person” means respecting the patient as the person he or she actually is, as the patient understands himself or herself to be. Or, as JCAHO puts it, “to have his or her cultural, psychosocial, spiritual, and personal values, beliefs, and preferences respected.” That means health care professionals must be knowledgeable about how culture can affect their interactions with patients.
Increasingly, in the hope of providing guidance for health care professionals empirical research seeks to identify and clarify how individuals from different cultural backgrounds go about being patients. Such studies explore preferences for who should make treatment decisions, attitudes toward dying, and a host of other culturally specific expectations about how care will be given and received. Those studies are valuable in many ways, but also potentially misleading. To serve their patients well, caregivers must appreciate the kinds of differences there can be among cultures, not simply memorize catalogues of “culture traits” as if they were unambiguous diagnostic signs. Caregivers, that is, need some of the skills of an ethnographer.
Among those kinds of cultural differences that are especially relevant in health care settings are diverging beliefs and expectations:
 about disease and healing
 about how, or even whether, one expresses pain
 about the obligations of family members to those who are critically ill or dying—to assure that family members receive certain kinds of care in fulfillment of duties of “filial” respect; to be physically present with the patient
 about the kinds of information that should or should not be shared with patients—such as details of diagnosis and/or prognosis
 about styles of communication—whether conversations with physicians are formal speech, or more familiar conversation, for example; or what is seen as respectful or disrespectful nonverbal communication
 about the body, including its role in one’s moral and spiritual life—what kinds of treatment a patient may or may not accept without violating the ethos or spiritual dignity of the body
 about how one understands and manages time—the daily schedules of health care facilities are often alien even to patients from the dominant culture
 about how one approaches death—for example, whether the last days of life are a time for completing unfinished worldly business, or a time for withdrawal and reflection.
Cultures are never monolithic, and individual patients are never simply particular tokens of general cultural types. Each patient comes to health care shaped by many influences, of which “culture” or “religion” or “ethnic background” is only one. Education, socioeconomic status, whether one came to a new country willingly or fleeing war, famine, or natural disaster in one’s homeland, all are part of who the patient is. And all will influence how the patient participates in relationships with caregivers.
Health care professionals can use general knowledge of cultural differences, along with their training in taking histories, to create productive, respectful relationships that acknowledge each patient’s uniqueness. Each patient offers a new opportunity to learn:
Listen to the patient with sympathy and understanding;
Explain the biomedical understanding of the patient’s condition;
Acknowledge and discuss differences and similarities in understanding;
Recommend treatment; and
Negotiate agreement to a plan of care.
Dr. Berkowitz:
I think we should point out that though it is individual clinicians who interact with patients, patients and practitioners interact with the health care system. How should institutions promote culturally competent care?
Dr. Crigger:
The burden of managing diverse expectations and understandings in health care does not fall solely on individual clinicians. Health care organizations and institutions have duties to provide resources for both clinicians and patients to support meaningful caregiving relationships. They have obligations to be aware not only of the clinical needs, but also the cultural, religious, and ethnic traditions of the communities they serve. They must assess staffing needs and patterns to serve those communities, especially by making appropriate interpretation services available. And they must work with communities to identify resources to help assure that needs are met—for example, local civic groups may be able to provide volunteer interpreters; religious leaders can give insight into the values and teachings of a faith tradition, or perhaps even offer informal instruction for staff to help prepare them to work with members of a faith community.
Dr. Berkowitz:
Let’s get a little more practical for a minute, because this talk has been a little theoretical, and these ideas can be hard to translate into actual cases of cultural conflict. Here is a case study that I think really brings to light some of the ethical implications we’ve been addressing today.
ML is a retired, 75-year-old Chinese-American veteran. A widower, ML now lives with his son, daughter-in-law, and their two children. His two adult daughters also live in the area.
ML experienced acute abdominal pain. His family brought him to the hospital, where Dr. B performed emergency exploratory laporatomy. The surgery confirmed Dr. B’s worst fears: widespread metastatic cancer of unknown primary origin. During surgery, he was able to identify an intestinal obstruction and resect the obstruction, but no further surgical treatment was possible.
Immediately after surgery, Dr. B spoke to the family in the waiting room to let them know ML was in recovery. The family, especially ML’s son, pressed him for the results, and in the end he shared the diagnosis and prognosis with them. The family then asked Dr. B not to tell ML about his condition. They feared he would lose hope. They told Dr. B that in their community, patients expect their families to make decisions for them, including decisions about what information to share with the patient.
Dr. B is uncomfortable with the family’s request. He suggests that he speak to ML and ask him whether he wants to be informed and involved or whether he wants his family to deal with everything. ML’s son rejects this suggestion. Posing the question to ML would place too much of a burden on him, the son says. And he insists that it is their duty as family members to take care of everything for their father.
What should Dr. B do?
Dr. Crigger:
Dr. B is indeed caught between the horns of a dilemma: His professional obligations, and institutional policy, require him to involve ML himself in making decisions about his care. But giving culturally competent care requires that he respect the cultural traditions of ML and his family.
Had ML not been admitted on an emergency basis, Dr. B could have spoken with him first to determine how much information he wanted to receive, and what role he wanted his family to play. In the present situation, there’s still a great deal that Dr. B and the caregiving team can do to resolve the dilemma, however.
They need to set aside time to talk further with the family about how best to care for ML. That conversation needs to take place in a location more suitable to reflection and conversation than the waiting room outside the surgical suite. Dr. B should focus on the common goal that he and ML’s family share: to assure that ML is comfortable and receives the best care possible in the situation. Dr. B should explain to the family that if that goal is to be achieved, ML will need to know something about his diagnosis. Leaving him in the dark will likely have a negative effect on him psychologically, since he will probably suspect that he is seriously ill—just because something is unspoken does not mean that it isn’t understood.
Moreover, when everyone around him keeps silence, ML may refrain from raising questions himself, and despite his family’s best intentions, may come to feel isolated. Not to mention that unless caregivers are able to explain treatments, ML will neither understand what is happening to him nor be able to give truly informed consent to treatment proposed for him.
That said, there’s a difference between conveying important information, and “inflicting” it. The late Benjamin Freedman, a philosopher and bioethicist, wrote insightfully about “offering truth” to patients. He described that as a dance between the physician and the patient: the physician tries to ascertain from the patient how much he or she wants to know, and to provide that information in a series of conversations, not a one-time “data dump.”3
Dr. B should “offer truth” to ML. First, he should explain to the family that he must tell ML that he is very ill, without giving him a formal diagnosis, but will then invite ML to ask questions and learn more about his illness. Then, with the family present, Dr. B should speak with ML about what “patients like you” sometimes want to know about their illness, such as its name, what the course of the illness is likely to be, what kinds of treatment choices there are. Dr. B should acknowledge that some patients want to know a great deal, others only want to know a little, and some would rather not know any details themselves but leave everything to be handled by someone in their family. He should ask ML what he would like, or offer him time to “think about things a bit” and talk with his family. And he should make clear that ML doesn’t have to ask all of his questions now—that sometimes, as patients learn more about their illness, they find they want to know more and think of new questions. Dr. B should assure ML that he will be available to talk again if ML wants.
The more familiar Dr. B already is with the “culture” of the local Chinese-American community, of course, the better he can tailor that conversation to make ML and his family as comfortable as possible. And the more effectively he can convey information—communities often have euphemisms that enable them to talk about delicate or unpleasant matters, indirect ways of saying something that get the basic point across without using specific words that are considered taboo, threatening, disrespectful, or inappropriate in other ways. One can sometimes speak of a “tumor,” for example, even if talking openly about “cancer” would be inappropriate.
In preparing to talk with ML, Dr. B should also reflect on his own expectations for shared decision making. Does he unconsciously expect that ML—or any patient really—should try to understand his condition from a biomedical perspective and be able to speak about it in clinical terms? Or would he be comfortable with roundabout ways of talking or different (non-biomedical) ways of explaining the situation? Given ML’s specific clinical situation, how much would information and understanding would be “just enough” for ML to know for Dr. B to be comfortable having the family make major decisions about ML’s care?
Dr. Berkowitz:
Thank you for your analysis. And now, if I could ask you to summarize all that we have covered here today, what is today’s take home message?
Dr. Crigger:
The ethical challenges of serving a diverse patient population are serious ones, calling for substantial commitment on the part of health care professionals to acquire the skills that will enable them to work effectively with patients from different backgrounds, and substantial commitment of resources on the part of health care institutions. But those commitments are in fact part of the ethos of medicine, built into the professional obligation to respect patients as persons and treat them with dignity.


Dr. Berkowitz:
At this point in the call, I would like to open the call for discussion of culturally competent care by asking our listeners in the field to share their thoughts and experiences on this topic. We ask that when you talk, you please begin by telling us your name, location and title so that we continue to get to know each other better.
Alan Sooho, MD, Battle Creek, MI:
If the patient does not speak English, how would you advise communicating with the patient? Should we use the family members or a neutral interpreter?
Dr. Crigger:
The standard should be to use a professional, medical interpreter. The reality is those people are rare and difficult for facility to pay for and staff. But that is certainly the best, because you want someone who can explain to the patient in a neutral way. Family members are very much involved in the situation they can have all kinds of other agendas, and if the clinician is not bilingual then there is no way of knowing what the interpreter is actually communicating.
Dr. Berkowitz:
I think it is very important to differentiate between an interpreter and a translator. What we really want is someone who is going to provide competent translation services not interpretation services where they put their own slant or angle and filter the information.
Dr. Crigger:
Exactly, you want someone who understands the biomedical world and the patient’s world, so that they can make that translation across the language barrier.
There are ways to get around not having an interpreter on staff or translator on staff. One of them is to have volunteers from the community, if that is possible. Another is the AT &T language line dial-up translator.

Bilingual staff can be asked to translate, but it is not always very good option to detail staff to this task. The absolute last option is to use a family member as an interpreter or translator. It is unfair to that individual to place that kind burden on them, and it can get you into all kinds of problems especially since the bilingual member of the family tends be younger, and that could lead to difficult situations with respect to behaviors between younger persons and their elders when the younger person suddenly has the expertise.

Dr. Berkowitz:
Thank you, Dr. Sooho for bringing that up. Any other comments?

Ware Kuschner, MD, Palo Alto VAMC:
You described some challenges, and I wonder if you could reflect on how anticipatory we should be in addressing possible cultural challenges. I would like to read a six sentence letter to the editor that I read in the Lancet just a couple of months ago, then ask you to comment on a similar challenge we are facing here. The letter is entitled “Non-vegetarian Anesthesia.” It goes as follows:
Many people worldwide are vegetarian or vegan. One day we were about to anesthetise a patient with propofol in preparation for surgery when he asked about the contents of the drug; he was curious about the milky color of the anesthetic. We explained that the preparation contained, among other things, egg lecithin. He immediately exclaimed, "Doctor! Could you please administer vegetarian anesthesia?"
We now always ask our patients about their food habits during our preoperative visit, and believe others should do the same. After all, if the option exists, it would be unethical to use animal products to treat such patients, and could cause great upset. (May 31, 2003; 361 (9372): 1916).
This is signed Praveen Kumar Neema, from a medical school in India.

Dr. Berkowitz:
That is a great question, and one that we have faced in the Center. We have consults from people who want to know what to do when a patient asks about the animal source of their medications.
Dr. Kuschner:
That is exactly the challenge we are facing. We have been moving from bovine derived heparin to porcine derived heparin. The porcine product could conflict with religious practices for people in the Jewish or Muslim faiths.
Dr. Berkowitz:
It is important to be sensitive to the individual patient’s culture and beliefs, and to learn about them as an individual. At a minimum, you should inform them when you are aware of a possible conflict and certainly to respect their choices whenever possible. But whose obligation it is to get that information is debatable, whether it is the institution’s and practitioner’s to elicit, or the patient’s to volunteer. As a general guideline, however, the overall principle is to respect persons.
Dr. Crigger:
This case also brings out another aspect of working with the community proactively. There are probably resources in the local community, like the imam or synagogue rabbi in the case of porcine heparin. We understand some cultural traditions to be opposed beef or pork products, but whether the tradition would require a patient to forgo those options is a different question. There may be other stronger values in the tradition, such as preserving life, that is more important then this concern about pollution from animal products. You need to know that, and to find that out in advance would be very helpful. And you can publicize that some medications involve different kinds of animal products, and if this is a problem it can be discussed in advance. We have learned to do that already with the Jehovah’s Witnesses community and their refusal of blood products. Not every clinician is happy not every Jehovah’s Witness is happy but we worked out a compromise that I think respects values from all sides.

Dr. Kuschner:
There is not always a recognized leader that we can ask when it comes to vegetarians. There are numerous medications that are animal based and people might be opposed to them based on religious reasons or non-religious reasons.
Dr. Crigger:
I am not sure that there is no easy solution to that, except to try and sit down with the patient or find a way to say, “Well, look this is what we have to balance here, these are the goods to be served by using this product, and we understand the risks that you run culturally and spiritually. We have to think about how to balance them in your case, and understand that this is the risk you run.” My message really is that culturally competent care is simply good clinical care. It is listening to this patient and knowing this patient and finding ways to work with this patient, even if they have this set of cultural traits that you know about.
Dr. Berkowitz:
Something to ask is if there are real alternatives available, and if so, how does that change the risk benefit ratio of administering the proposed treatment? If we can offer an alternative within the standards of medical practice, I think there would have to be a good reason why we would not do what the patient wanted.

Dr. Kuschner:
What I am really driving at here is to what extent do we need to anticipate the possibility that a proposed treatment may be at variance with the beliefs of a minority of our patients? Things like porcine derived heparin, or the use of animal derived products is going to be opposed by a minority of patients because of either religious or vegetarian beliefs. Does that obligate us to address or inform our patients of the fact that some of the medications they may have were animal products? One obvious option for prophylactic substituted heparin is to refuse it. There are other low risk strategies including sequential compression devices.
Dr. Berkowitz:
We obviously cannot anticipate everything about every person, but we need to foster an environment where we get to know our patients and encourage them to come forward with things that are important to them so we really can get to know them as much as we can. There is no way we can develop a standard questionnaire or interview where we find out everything about everyone, and anticipate all of these things.
Dr. Crigger:
I think you raised a good point using the word “minority.” I think it is also important for health care providers to realize that they may have a teaching role to play for patients who come with different cultural traditions. They are coming to allopathic medicine for care, and you have certain obligations as providers to do the job well. You may need to explain to patients, “you come to us for care, this is part of what it means. We are going to be as sensitive as we can, but these are the things we need to do, this is our medicine.” And, as you mentioned, patients can refuse.
Muskogee VAMC:
The term culturally competent is very attractive, but is it better than the term culturally sensitive? At our center we have a number of patients who smoke cigarettes who go to an educational program where the teacher is caucasian. A number of non-caucasian participants complain that the examples used in the program are not culturally sensitive, and therefore they derive less benefit. Is the institution obliged to ensure that the teacher has some sort of cultural sensitivity in delivering this program?
Dr. Crigger:
I would say yes, but within reason. You do not want to strain the resources of the facility to find specific examples, and you cannot possibly ever anticipate all the different cultural variations you are going to get. But, if you know that you have a range of patients in your community, it certainly would be appropriate to develop a teaching example that takes that into account.
The problem with the term “culturally sensitive” is that we risk having it do too much work, and I do not want to go there. I want us to really focus on this notion of respect.
Dr. Berkowitz:

I would say that if you know that you are offending people by the example of the educational program there is a clear obligation to develop a different teaching example. It would be unimaginable to think that it would be too much effort to change the example.

Muskogee VAMC:
Thank you.
Dr. Berkowitz:
To turn Dr. Kuschner’s comment around, we have also had instances where a practitioner, say an anestheologist has preferred not to distribute medications that were meat or animal derived. That presents a unique set of problems in terms of professional responsibilities and the duty of the professional to not inflict, if you will, the professional culture on the patient.
Dr. Crigger:
That is part of this notion of awareness and understanding. You need to know how your own culture shapes your work, and how that interacts with your obligations as a health care professional. Maybe once you step into that role of professional, you have to set aside some of your personal beliefs. I am not sure that cultural beliefs are different from the philosophical or religious beliefs that we bring to the table in that sense.
Gladys White, PhD, RN, National Center for Ethics in Health Care; Washington DC:
I wanted to ask Dr. Crigger if you have identified specific cultural issues associated with being an American veteran, and being involved in military service that would have an impact, for example, on experiences and expressions about pain, or submerging individual identity in the interest of the group.
Dr. Crigger:
As an anthropologist I am a little nervous about how we use the word culture to mean a little too much. We talk about the culture of medicine, we talk about the culture of veterans, but I am not sure that is quite a culture. But you are right that there may be things about having come through armed conflict, that bind people with different experiences in certain ways that we need to be sensitive to. I do not know of any particular data about the culture of veterans, but I think that if you had information you would find that veterans of WWI cohort versus veterans of Korean war versus veterans of the war in Iraq would have significantly different experiences, and would come to the health care setting with different expectations. One common thread is that they come with an ethos of service, and an ethos of obedience, and that may make them a more vulnerable population in terms of shared decision making.
James Hallenbeck, MD; Palo Alto VAMC:
I also think it is a pretty broad net to talk about veterans as a culture. One of the things we are particularly interested in here is how witnessing traumatic deaths may effect a veteran’s own end-of-life experiences and life review. To the best of my knowledge, there is not good literature on that.
William Nelson, PhD, National Center for Ethics in Health Care; New York:
My understanding is that our colleagues at the National Center for PTSD have been conducting several research projects where they have been correlating wartime trauma and how that impacts patients beyond their mental health. You may want to look at that literature.
Dr. Crigger:
There has also been a fair amount of literature in the Western Journal of Medicine particularly, on health care in refugee populations, which may bring some of the same issues to the fore.


Dr. Berkowitz:
Well, as usual, we did not expect to conclude this discussion in the time allotted, and unfortunately we are out of time for today's discussion. We will post on our Web site a very detailed summary of each National Ethics Teleconference. So please visit our Web site to review today's discussion. We will be sending a follow up email for this call that will include the links to the appropriate web addresses for the call summary, the CME credits, and the references referred to.
I would like to thank everyone who has worked hard on the development, planning, and implementation of this call. It is never a trivial task and I appreciate everyone's efforts, especially, Dr. Bette-Jane Crigger, and Mr. Leland Saunders, other members of the Ethics Center and EES staff who support these calls.

  • Let me remind you our next NET call will be on Wednesday, September 17, 2003 at 1pm Eastern. Please look to the Web site at and your Outlook e-mail for details and announcements.

  • I will be sending out a follow-up e-mail for this call with the e-mail addresses and links that you can use to access the Ethics Center, the summary of this call and the instructions for obtaining CME credits, and the references that I mentioned.

  • Please let us know if you or someone you know should be receiving the announcements for these calls and didn't.

  • Please let us know if you have suggestions for topics for future calls.

  • Again, our e-mail address is:

Thank you and have a great day!

1 National Ethics Committee. An Ethical Analysis of Ethnic Disparities in Health Care. Washington, DC: 2001. Available at:

2 Charmaz K. Good day, Bad days: The Self in Chronic Illness. Rutgers University Press; New Brunswick, NJ: 1993.

3 Freedman B. Offering Truth. One ethical approach to the uninformed cancer patient. Arch Intern Med. 1993; 153(5):572-6.

For Further Reading
Academic Medicine 2003; 78(6). Special Theme: Cultural Competence. Table of Contents available at:
Tucker CM, Herman KC, Pedersen TR, et al. Cultural sensitivity in physician-patient relationships: Perspectives of an ethically diverse sample of low-income primary care patients. Med Care 2003; 41(7): 859-70.

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