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Synopsis

In cross-cultural health care interactions, there are many situations where communication is challenging because patients and their families exhibit different values, beliefs, and behaviors from those of their American physicians. Physicians educated in western medicine, who work in the health care system in the United States, operate within a highly specific medical culture though they may not even realize how acculturated they have become within that world of medicine.

As a result, American physicians often get frustrated when patients give long convoluted answers to seemingly simple questions. They get even more frustrated when patients nod and smile in agreement to treatment plans but don’t follow through. In private practice settings, the biggest challenge can be dealing with people who are chronically late or don't show up at all. Time is money for private practices and clinics - indeed this seems to be true about everyone in American society. But people from other cultures, who do not always understand the value Americans place on time and productivity, may seem to show a lax attitude towards punctuality. This creates frustration on both sides of the medical interaction.

Intercultural communication in is a field closely related to anthropology, social psychology, and sociology. Specific to the domain of intercultural communications is the study of how people create meaning from the world around them and how they communicate with others to achieve cooperation. Intercultural communications theory, when applied in health care settings, can be useful in helping doctors and their staffs relate more effectively to their patients from diverse cultural backgrounds.

The most effective communication skills are very much the same in a cross-cultural setting as within our own culture: listen without judging, repeat back what you understand to clarify, confirm meanings, give suggestions and acknowledge when mutual understanding is reached - or not. However, when communicating with a person from a different culture, we need to add to these basic skills. We need to build some understanding of how our own values, beliefs, and attitudes create particular expectations within us, and further how these expectations may not match those of other cultures. Time and again, cross-cultural patient-doctor interactions go awry and unfortunately this happens in far too many high stakes situations. Better communication is absolutely vital!

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