March 16, 2010
A delightful couple, pregnant with their first child, came to the office to interview me, to help them decide if I was the right pediatrician for their baby. We had a lovely chat and I felt that I was doing well. At the very end, they asked a question. “Do you have many Asian patients? Do you find you have to ask questions a different way with them or that you have to take a different approach?“ I took these questions as an inquiry about my level of cultural sensitivity. I had a long answer. For the record, though, these people looked by their facial features to be of Asian ancestry; the last name appeared to be of Japanese origin.
“It’s the Bay Area, “ I replied. “What are the odds?“ They agreed it was pretty likely that I had some Asian patients. This was the beginning of my reply.
I told them I took care of a group of about 8 or 10 families from Mongolia. They all live near each other because only a couple of them speak any English at all, and the language barrier is substantial. Taking care of them has sometimes been a challenge. there are no patient-education materials available in Mongolian. AT&T has available translators via telephone in dozens and dozens of languages, but Mongolian is not among them. I called UNICEF at the United Nations in New York. They did send people to Mongolia, but they had no patient information. Same story when I contacted the World Health Organization in Geneva, Switzerland. At one point I had a polite exchange of emails with the Minister of Health in Ulan Bator, Mongolia. He or the person composing the emails under his direction and signing his name, had good English-Language skills. His office had no written materials on child health in Mongolian. These families are Asian. Am I culturally sensitive with them? Probably not. Since communication is so difficult, we need every extemporaneous sign language technique we can come up with just to convey information. So cultural sensitivity is not helped by a language barrier. I take care of these Asian patients, but do I take care of them differently? Yes, I suppose so, but it’s not because of a cultural divide.
I’m reminded of a classmate in medical school. When he was 14, his parents and he joined many others on a small boat headed blindly from Vietnam out into the South China Sea. Obviously they made it, and he’s now a fine surgeon. What should I know to deal with his family in a Vietnamese-friendly way? Are Koreans different? What about Malaysians of Chinese descent?
When I was in business, there were no courses that were required, but everyone knew that Japanese investors and businessmen expected certain salesmanship behaviors when they were entertained in New York. In Japan, a completely different set of rules applied. It wasn’t called cultural awareness, it was called good business. In Hong Kong, it was often thought best not to mention that you’d just had a successful series of meetings in Tokyo.
So what was this nice couple asking me? If I had other patients who, by their visible bodily characteristics, appeared to be of Asian descent? Nearly half the human race is of Asian descent. Were they asking if I treated my patients of Japanese descent as if they were Japanese? I don’t know. How many generations of their family have been born in the United States?
I take care of a nice family, for example, with a hyphenated last name. They are all American citizens. They say that they are Brazilian. When their kids were born, I encouraged the parents to speak only Portuguese to them at home. The mother’s ancestors were from Portugal. She looks like a European might. The father’s ancestors were Chinese. He looks Asian. The kids are…adorable. Is this an Asian family? I don’t think even the father’s parents speak much Chinese, back in Brazil. How Asian to you have to be to qualify for a checkbox of ethnic identity? How Asian to you have to look?
No institution with which I have been associated over the last 20 years or so has failed to offer--actually require, I think--a course of some sort in cultural sensitivity. As demanded, I have wasted valuable hours in these courses. In one, the head of a fabulous Spanish-language health clinic gave a presentation on cultural awareness doctors should have to the Latino community. Assuming that language wasn’t a barrier, what could I do with that? Ask a proud Ecuadorian if they identify more with Mexicans than with Americans? Ask someone from Spain if they relate better to a Dominican than a Californian? Will I learn about the distinctions of all those who speak Spanish in a short course or lecture on cultural sensitivity?
I have a family from Yemen. Devout Muslims, they appreciate that I never extend my hand to the mother. I try to be respectful and to the point. I don’t even close the exam-room door when I see their kids and the father isn’t with them.
I think that doctors--people in general--look fake when they try to be someone they’re not. I also think that doctors can be particularly culturally insensitive. But I think it’s cynical political correctness to require learning cultural sensitivity. What they really need to learn is just sensitivity.
If physicians are going to be culturally sensitive, they must first spend enough time with the patient to listen. Maybe they can take a course on reading body language and eye contact, tone of voice or listening skills. Maybe they can learn to interrupt just a little bit less. This would go a really long way towards sensitivity to what a patient really needs. I don't think it's helpful to put on an air of paternalistic cosmopolitanism—like an anachronistic white man's burden—that says to patients that overeducated well-to-do Americans can feel inappropriately self-confident about learning in an hour what patients have taken a lifetime to master.
It's nice if you and your auto mechanic grew up in the same neighborhood. But it's a lot nicer if you find a mechanic who treats you well, listens to your complaint, and actually fixes your car. Which one would you choose? The one that shares your background/language/heritage or the one who listens to you, does a great job, and doesn't rip you off?
Medical management (and this applies equally to corporate management) shows astounding hubris to impose an unsupported belief that patients will perceive as a better experience a visit with a doctor who has memorized a few facts about your grandparents' country of origin. Whether the patient is from Mongolia or Malaysia, Brazil or Burundi, I don't pretend to be something I'm not. If doctors could spend more time, could simply have more empathy, listen to their patients and think about what it's like to live a day in their shoes, cultural sensitivity would just be sensitivity.
The photograph from my collection is by Keith Carter and is titled, "George Washington."