Researchers and health care providers at Reading Hospital have found an important key to improving patient care. Cultural awareness.
The city’s multi-cultural make up presents unique challenges for health care providers, who must relate to patients from different backgrounds on a very personal level.
It is not unusual for a doctor, nurse or aide to treat a recent immigrant from the Middle East, a transgender person or a person who holds strict conservative religious beliefs, all in one day.
And each of these patients will have a different perspective on how they want to be treated.
This makes cultural awareness, or the ability of health care providers to meet the cultural and social needs of their patients, a necessity.
To address this need, the hospital, Tower Health’s flagship in Reading, developed and launched its Cultural Awareness Program this year.
The catalyst was a needs assessment survey three years ago, said Desha Dickson, associate vice president of community wellness at Reading Hospital. The survey helps the hospital determine what it’s doing right, and what needs to be improved.
“Cultural awareness was something that the community members identified as a barrier to care,” Dixon said. “Some felt they were not being understood, or that their religion was not being respected.”
The realization that improving staff understanding of patients’ cultures would improve how they respond to treatment, Reading set out to educate their staff. First, they sought to find a partner to help develop a curriculum. They found that ally in Reading’s Alvernia University, which has been training student nurses on cultural awareness for nearly two decades.
Together, over the span of six months, they developed a 10-hour cultural awareness course.
The program is broken into two four-hour classroom sessions, in addition to two hours of at-home prep work. The classes cover how to be culturally aware when it comes to a patient’s nutrition, spirituality, family roles, and more.
Staff are also exposed to hypothetical situations designed to invite discussion, Dixon said.
“There might be a vegan who does not want their meal prepared on the same grill as a steak,” she said, “or a member of the LGBTQ community who prefers to be addressed by a specific pronoun. … There might be different remedies for pain in different cultures.”
The classes “opened everyone’s eyes” to different solutions, she said. “It was exactly the type of conversation we wanted.”
Delivering culturally sensitive care is about awareness, Dixon said.
“How do we become aware? she asked. “Ask questions. It is as simple as that.”
A health care provider might ask a patient if they need space for prayer, or what pronoun they would like to be addressed with.
Karen Thacker, dean of professional programs at Alvernia, and Dr. Greg Chown, associate professor of occupational therapy at Alvernia, worked on the questions staff are using.
“Questions like that aim to help health care providers attain better cultural understanding,” Thacker said.
Thacker helped create the curriculum for the program, while Chown taught the course.
“Reading Hospital approached us and we were confident we could do this,” Thacker said. “For me, it is the partnership between the hospital and Alvernia that shines through the whole process. There is so much back and forth. The hospital and academics both had input and that is what made the program highly effective.”
As for Chown, it was the experience of teaching the course itself that stood out. “The students were engaged and that made it fun to teach,” he said. “We had a great dialogue. It was a diverse group, and that’s important too. There were employees from all levels in the class, from physicians to housekeepers. We all need to learn how to be more culturally aware.”
There are three basics hallmarks to achieving greater cultural understanding, he said: Be open. Ask questions. And travel, read and experience different cultures.
“Different cultures experience things differently,” he said. “And we hope to bridge that gap so that patients can receive better care.”
So far, 300 hospital employees have completed the program, according to Dickson. All of the employees were paid for their course time and each received a certificate of completion upon its end.
“We didn’t simply collect research so that pages of study would sit on a shelf,” Dickson said. “We reacted to the information that we found. The program is a clear example of saying ‘We heard you,’ and ‘We are using what you told us as an opportunity to learn and grow.’”