As America grows more diverse, health care providers must know not only how to treat patients but also how to talk to them, a minority health official said Tuesday.
Cultural competency is the new byword, although there is debate over what it really means, said Nathan Stinson Jr., deputy assistant secretary for minority health in the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. He spoke at Medical College of Georgia as part of Black History Month.
Minorities make up 25 percent of the U.S. population, and that number will grow in coming years, Dr. Stinson said.
"That's a strength of this country, not a liability," Dr. Stinson said. But it means providers will be increasingly faced with patients from different backgrounds and more patients who speak something other than English, he added.
"The success of the doctor-patient, the provider-client relationship is all about communication," Dr. Stinson said. He faced this during his residency treating patients at a Navajo reservation. Communicating through family members often meant something was missed, he said.
New York hospitals, treating patients speaking about 40 different languages, are trying to come together to address the problem. The hospitals are looking at maintaining a pool of interpreters that could respond when needed, he said. Another New York hospital had a pilot project to use a U.N.-style system for simultaneous translation of patient-provider conversations, Dr. Stinson said.
It's an issue that medical schools are just beginning to address and something that second-year MCG medical student Kristi Kinsey said has hardly been raised in her classes. Though she took Spanish in high school and college, she is concerned about being fluent enough to communicate with a patient who doesn't speak English.
"That's kind of scary," said Ms. Kinsey, 26, president of the Student National Medical Association at MCG. "There are certain clues the doctor needs to know and that person may not be able to give those certain clues."
Reach Tom Corwin at (706) 823-3213.
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