Cultural competency: What physicians should know
By: ProAssurance
Risk Resource Department

Q. I am hearing a lot about “cultural competency.” What does that mean, and what can you tell me about it?

A.That’s a good question. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) defines it most simply as “the learned and shared behavior of a community of interacting human beings.” And, as our culture becomes more diverse, it is important for physicians and other health care professionals to be aware of and sensitive to diversity and the unique cultural characteristics that shape individuals. The CDC lists a number of diversity categories and cultural groups, such as profession, language, disability, gender, spirituality, geography and native culture, to name a few.

A person’s culture can affect their interpretation of the health care system, the perceived cause of an illness, how well they interact with the physicians and other health care providers administering care and – especially with patients who don’t speak Cultural competency: What physicians should know English – the ability to understand a diagnosis or a path of treatment. According to CDC statistics, approximately 45 million people in the United States speak a language other than English at home. Health care providers who receive federal financial assistance (e.g., Medicare, Medicaid, etc.) are required to provide language assistance services, such as interpreters and translated documents, for limited English proficiency patients. Read more about this requirement at

When physicians work with interpreters, it’s important that they speak about the case itself – and agree on ground rules – before treatment begins.

Open-ended questions are recommended when communicating with patients from another culture. Examples include asking how they feel about being diagnosed with the condition, how they feel about others knowing about the condition, and whether there are any living or work conditions that might affect their treatment. The CDC also recommends a physician determine a patient’s daily routine, living situation and perceptions of Western medicine.

Many more resources on cultural competency are available at; search for “cultural diversity.”

Finally, as with all patients – document, document, document. Your best defense against any potential liability claims is a thorough record.

Physicians insured by ProAssurance may contact our Risk Resource department for prompt answers to liability questions by calling 844-223-9648 or via e-mail at