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How 3 AAPI Doctors Are Providing Culturally Sensitive Care

A doctor guiding a patient.

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Key Takeaways

  • Many Asian American and Pacific Islander (AAPI) doctors are providing culturally competent care to their patients.
  • This involves communicating in their languages and being respectful of individual cultural practices.
  • Culturally competent care can lead to better treatment and more patient satisfaction.

When Annmarie Nguyen’s father tested positive for COVID-19, all she could think was that she did not want to bury another family member—she had lost her mother to COVID-19 in January.

“My mom is already gone," Nguyen, an OB-GYN, tells Verywell. "I can’t lose my dad." Nguyen took her father to Elizabeth Nghiem, MD, a Vietnamese American infectious disease specialist in Los Angeles.

Ngheim's infectious disease background wasn't all that helped Nguyen’s father—it was her ability to provide culturally sensitive care. 

What Is Culturally Sensitive Care?

Culturally sensitive care, or culturally competent care, is defined as the ability of a healthcare provider to meet the social, cultural, and linguistic needs of patients.

Culturally Sensitive Care In Practice

For Nghiem, practicing culturally sensitive care means being aware of other cultures and creating a safe and comfortable environment for all of her patients.

Communication

One example of how Nghiem practices culturally sensitive care is by speaking in her patient's first language when possible. She speaks Vietnamese, English, and some conversational Spanish.

Research shows that language concordance–when a patient works with a healthcare provider who is proficient in their preferred language–improves care in a few ways. For example, when a doctor speaks the same language as their patients:

  • Less information gets lost in translation, which means there is less risk for medical errors
  • Providers are able to better understand their patients' conditions and treatment plans
  • Patients are more likely to stick with treatment plans
  • Patients are more satisfied with their care

Nguyen says that having bilingual staff made her and her father feel more comfortable with the COVID antibody treatment he received. “She [Elizabeth Ngheim] had a registered nurse and physician assistant who were bilingual and she picked them out from all the people that she worked with at the hospital to come in to help my dad with his infusion," Nguyen says.

Respect

Nghiem also makes it a point to respect each patient’s end-of-life rituals since she recognizes that "people have different ways of dealing with it based on their religion and beliefs."

She often collaborates with religious leaders to perform end-of-life traditions. “Some Buddhist religions want their family members to be left in the room for four hours before we move them anywhere," Nghiem says. "So we've learned so much and we're learning to adapt."

What This Means For You

When looking for culturally competent care you can ask trusted friends and family for recommendations. Consider looking online or asking for referrals from cultural organizations in your community. Or you can talk to your health insurance provider about finding healthcare providers that fit your background.

Challenges and Considerations

Throughout the pandemic, Nghiem often encountered challenges when trying to meet culturally sensitive care practices.

For example, when there was an ICU bed shortage, Nghiem recalls that she and her colleagues did not want to rush patients and their families out solely for the purpose of clearing beds. “We had to accommodate a separate room outside the ICU so they can be comfortable while letting another person take that ventilator," she adds.

Including Family in Decision-Making

Cathy Hung, DDS, a Taiwanese board-certified oral and maxillofacial surgeon, tells Verywell that in some cultures, family members make healthcare decisions for the patients and that "there may be some cultural values that affect decision making."

Hung adds that part of being culturally sensitive is respecting the other person's cultural values, and that “it is really important to include both of them in this decision."

Meeting Individual Patients' Needs

Ai Mukai, MD, a Japanese American and board-certified physical medicine and rehabilitation physician at Texas Orthopedics in Austin, Texas, tells Verywell that culturally competent care is not a one-size-fits-all solution. Instead, practitioners need to provide individualized care and meet patients where they are at.

“I ask questions about what is important to them–how they approach their health and wellbeing and what goals they are trying to achieve,” Mukai says. “I align my recommendations with their goals and values and provide education and options as clearly as possible.” 

Why Culturally Sensitive Care Matters

Culturally competent care leads to better patient satisfaction and fosters trust between doctors and patients. It can also improve access to high-quality health care that responds to a patient’s needs.

“As a healthcare provider, it allows all of the healthcare providers to effectively and efficiently promote healthcare services to a more diverse population,” Nghiem says. “By doing this, we’ll be able to give more people access to the best available healthcare that many people need, but don’t have at this time.”

Nguyen's family benefitted from Nghiem's commitment. She tells Verywell that she's "thankful for her [Elizabeth Ngheim] presence in the community," and is grateful that Nghiem was able to fit her father into a busy schedule because it "saved his life."

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  1. Health Policy Institute. Cultural Competence in Health Care: Is it important for people with chronic conditions?. Updated February 13, 2019.

  2. Molina RL, Kasper J. The power of language-concordant care: a call to action for medical schools. BMC Med Educ. 2019;19(1):378. Published 2019 Nov 6. doi:10.1186/s12909-019-1807-4