ULG's Language Services Blog

How to Improve Cultural Competence Within a Healthcare Organization



Healthcare organizations in the United States provide care to a highly diverse patient demographic. Effectively connecting and communicating with these patients is vital to the overall care experience and is key to a successful treatment plan. Thus, healthcare organizations are taking steps to enhance their cultural competence.

What Does Cultural Competence Mean for a Healthcare Organization?

According to the American Hospital Association, cultural competence in a healthcare organization describes the ability and resources to provide care to patients of diverse values, beliefs, and behaviors, including tailoring care delivery to meet patients' cultural, social, and linguistic needs.[1] This is a specific manifestation of the broader concept of cultural competence, as defined by the U.S. Center for Disease Control (CDC): “a set of congruent behaviors, attitudes, and policies that come together in a system, agency, or among professionals that enables effective work in cross-cultural situations.” As used by the CDC,

  • “Culture” refers to the integrated, shared patterns of behavior of racial, ethnic, religious, and social groups, including language, thoughts, communications, actions, customs, beliefs, values, and institutions.
  • “Competence” refers to the capacity of an individual and an organization to function effectively within the context of the cultural beliefs, behaviors, and needs presented by consumers and their communities.[2]

Improving cultural competence can help healthcare providers better identify the causes of issues affecting their patients and develop solutions targeted to address each demographic’s concerns. It can help minimize adverse outcomes and improve overall community health.

Robust cultural competence within care systems has marked benefits for the organization, patients, and community. These include improved health outcomes, increased respect and mutual understanding from patients, improved community health, lower costs, and fewer care disparities.[3]


What Steps Can Healthcare Organizations Take to Improve Cultural Competence?

Organizations can begin bettering their cultural competence by developing an organized plan for growth and identifying the resources they will need to implement and execute that plan. In general, successful plans incorporate three broad focus areas.

The CDC recommends that a healthcare organization seeking to become culturally competent should first take steps to understand the local community and its role in the larger community. The organization should collect data using surveys of the local community regarding how it can best serve the local populace. Then, it should analyze that data and communicate its findings to determine priorities. Once it establishes its goals, it should educate its staff and align its programming and resources to meet its specific community needs.

1) Hire Diverse Staff

Connecting with the community you serve is easier if your organization represents and reflects that community. Take steps to hire staff members in leadership and front-facing roles that share cultural values with your patient demographics. Once employees are on board, implement policies and programs that help them succeed. These could include mentorship programs, childcare programs, community-building activities, culturally tailored resources like translated employee handbooks and personnel information, and more.

It is essential to point out that hiring diverse staff is not a substitute for making interpretation and translation resources available. Relying on diverse staff members as a primary resource to translate documents or interpret conversations between patients and staff or among staff members adds a layer of additional uncompensated responsibility onto their existing job duties. It also unfairly delegates them a more significant share of the burden for achieving cultural competence.


2) Conduct ongoing cultural competence training

A healthcare organization must continuously prioritize cultural competence. It requires enthusiastic involvement from the top down, including regular, ongoing training for all organization members.

The first steps involve establishing a practice of developing skills for communication and interaction between cultures. Identify the specific regional, cultural, ethnic, and sociological challenges and variations in the community your organization serves. Learn about different worldviews and cultural practices, especially those that affect the organization directly. Develop and encourage positive attitudes towards cultural differences and cultivate an awareness of each person's own worldview.

In addition to fostering awareness, becoming a culturally competent healthcare organization requires implementing systems that increase knowledge, identify and locate resources, educate care providers on how to access and utilize resources, and promote an attitude of positivity and inclusion that encourages connection and communication.

The CDC recommends a four-step training process:

  • Assessing what the needs of the community are and how well they are (or aren't) being met
  • Conducting in-person and simulated training, including interactions between patients and staff
  • Repeating and reviewing training exercises
  • Measurement and tracking data to monitor efficacy/improvement.

3) Train Staff to utilize interpreters and translators to eliminate language barriers

In a healthcare setting, patients and providers must be able to communicate fully and completely. Effective communication helps providers understand their patients’ issues, facilitates effective treatment, and helps ensure the patient understands their care plan (including medications and follow-up treatments). Improving cultural competence fosters trust between the medical providers, the patients, and the community at large.

Providing easy access to interpretation/translation/localization services for care providers and patients helps improve communication and reduce negative outcomes significantly. Training staff to work with certified medical interpreters is an effective way to bridge the communication gap between limited English proficiency (LEP) patients and medical providers. This can improve outcomes for individual patients as well as improve community health metrics in aggregate.  

Some providers may benefit from having bilingual or multi-lingual translation/interpretation resources on site. However, not all healthcare communities have the resources to employ full-time or on-call expert interpreters. To provide these services, organizations can contract with individuals to perform professional interpretation tasks on an on-call basis or utilize a professional communication and interpretation company like ULG. These options help ensure access for a wide variety of patient demographics. Whichever choice is right for your organization, ensure that the medical care providers know how to utilize those resources in the moment at the time of service.


Looking to increase positive health outcomes in your community by improving your organizations cultural competence? Get in touch with one of our healthcare language experts to get started!


[1] Becoming a Culturally Competent Health Care Organization. AHA.org. https://www.aha.org/system/files/hpoe/Reports-HPOE/becoming-culturally-competent-health-care-organization.PDF. Published June 2013. Accessed March 20, 2021.

[2] Cultural Competence in Health And Human Services. CDC.gov. https://npin.cdc.gov/pages/cultural-competence. Published October 20, 2020. Accessed March 20, 2021.

[3] Becoming a Culturally Competent Health Care Organization. AHA.org. https://www.aha.org/system/files/hpoe/Reports-HPOE/becoming-culturally-competent-health-care-organization.PDF. Published June 2013. Accessed March 20, 2021.