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Cultural Competence in Nursing

Nurses care for people and help people care for themselves. They strive to connect with people, educate them in healthcare matters and help them feel comfortable in the healthcare setting.

Pervasive cultural inequities in healthcare systems continue to challenge the values and goals of nursing. Overcoming these inequities and resulting healthcare disparities requires fostering cultural competency throughout healthcare systems.

Having the most regular personal interaction with patients, nurses are at the forefront of driving cultural competency and equity. Coursework in the University of North Carolina Wilmington (UNCW) online RN to BSN program focuses on transcultural issues and cultural sensitivity in modern healthcare. These studies can help nurses cultivate cultural competence in themselves, their peers and their healthcare organization, furthering the profession. 

What Is Cultural Competence and Why Is It Important in Healthcare Settings?

The American Psychological Association (APA) loosely defines cultural competence as “the ability to understand, appreciate and interact with people from cultures or belief systems different from one’s own.”

Historically marginalized and oppressed cultures have long had uneven access to quality, affordable healthcare. Cultural insensitivity, bias and prejudice can impact healthcare delivery and the populations served. Differences in cultural norms, communication, stigma and language barriers can worsen the gap between people and the care they need.

Minority employment in healthcare professions is also low. This results in a lack of diversity in healthcare settings. Minimal cultural representation in the workforce can present further barriers to patient trust and comfort with healthcare services.

Healthcare professionals cannot adequately care for the health of whole communities when integral parts of that community are disconnected from and negatively impacted by healthcare systems. This means developing cultural competence and diversity in healthcare settings is of utmost importance if healthcare professionals are to accomplish their main goals.

Further, inequity in healthcare systems goes against the ethics that underpin healthcare practices. Thus, fostering cultural competence in healthcare environments is ethically and morally imperative.

How Can Nurses Foster Cultural Competence?

Nurses are on the frontlines, building the human connections and relationships that drive positive outcomes in healthcare practices. This positions nurses to imbue patient-provider interactions with culturally competent practices, improving the patient experience, health outcomes and patients’ knowledge of and relationship with their own health.

In approaching cultural competence through its core components, nurses should reflect on their own cultural backgrounds and beliefs. They can further develop their awareness through recognizing and working to deconstruct their own biases and prejudices, including their projection of internal cultural norms and beliefs on others. Informal, self-directed efforts as well as formal developmental experiences like anti-bias and diversity training can help nurses deepen their cultural competence.

Nurses can then build their knowledge, understanding and appreciation of other cultures, including the cultures of patients they serve. Taking these steps involves a direct, empathetic conversation with patients, showing interest in their experiences and being responsive to their beliefs and norms.

It also involves actively seeking out transformational experiences and immersing oneself in other cultures. Working in community clinics, traveling, volunteering with community services and partnering with community workers from other sectors can drive cultural competence development.

To build cultural competencies, nurses can study and practice transcultural communication, cultural sensitivity and active listening. Programs like UNCW’s online RN to BSN help students learn such skills in the context of the healthcare setting.

In addition, nurses can have an exponential positive impact on their community by encouraging colleagues and supervisors to practice cultural competence.

Building a culturally competent healthcare organization involves deconstructing biases and developing cultural awareness, knowledge and skills at the individual level. Yet, it also involves transforming the organizational structure, staffing, policy, hiring practices, community outreach and even pricing structures.

Organizations that seek to build a workforce that reflects and represents their community can end up transforming it. Efforts that integrate diversity and cultural competence into every aspect of an organization have a cumulative effect over time.

Through advancing individual and organizational cultural competency, nurses can be instrumental in reshaping modern healthcare. They may not be able to undo injustices of the past. But with compassion and intention, they can create a more equitable and efficacious healthcare system to better serve diverse communities for generations to come.

Learn more about UNCW’s online RN to BSN program.


American Psychological Association: In Search of Cultural Competence

Diversity Officer Magazine: What is Cultural Competence & How is it Measured?

Hospitals in Pursuit of Excellence: Becoming a Culturally Competent Health Care Organization

Med City News: The Need for Cultural Competence in Healthcare

Nurse Journal: Cultural Competence in Nursing

The Chicago School of Professional Psychology: The Importance of Cultural Competence in Nursing

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