While experts often assess health across our entire national population, health risks do not look the same for each of us. Culture and ethnicity impact health and affect our likelihood of developing certain diseases and conditions. For example, Hispanic adults in the United States are 65% more likely to be diagnosed with diabetes than their non-Hispanic white peers. Hispanic adults also face a higher prevalence of obesity (47%) than non-Hispanic white adults (36%) and non-Hispanic Black adults (46%). Meanwhile, heart disease accounts for a higher percentage of deaths among non-Hispanic white Americans (21.3%) than among either non-Hispanic Black Americans (20.7%) or Hispanic Americans (15.8%).
Genetics alone can’t explain these disparities. Some impediments to care for certain communities are structural, such as language barriers and lack of access to culturally competent providers. But there are also social and environmental determinants of health outcomes, including lifestyle factors and cultural beliefs and values.
How does culture impact health management?
Culture strongly influences how we each manage our health. That’s because our community’s beliefs, behaviors, and practices guide most things in our lives, from what we eat to whether we seek support for issues that arise.
- How we eat: Nutrition plays a major role in health, and culture is a strong influence on what and how we eat. In one example of this, Hispanic communities may be experiencing greater rates of diabetes and obesity than other communities in part because some of their traditional foods tend to be high in fat and calories.
- Activities we do: How we live our daily lives also affects health. For example, non-Hispanic Black Americans and non-Hispanic white Americans smoke at higher rates than other racial and ethnic groups—13.3% and 14.4% respectively—and also have the highest annual incidence of lung cancer. Meanwhile, rates of both smoking and lung cancer in U.S. Hispanic communities are about half those in non-Hispanic Black communities.
- Our social context: The community values that guide our behavior and beliefs influence whether and how we pursue healthcare. For example, members of a community in which a collective identity is highly valued may be less likely to get treatment that inconveniences others. Or, in Black communities, many people distrust healthcare institutions due to a history of racism and therefore may be less likely to pursue care, particularly preventative care like vaccinations.
- Our comfort with emotional support: Our culture may affect whether and how we seek emotional support or mental health treatment. This may have to do with cultural biases or taboos, or can reflect structural limitations related to race and culture, such as a shortage of mental health providers from particular communities.
These are just a few of the ways that our culture can impact how we manage our health. Often, this can lead to hesitation in seeking support. Individuals may assume who they connect with won’t understand their unique needs and cultural influences—so they avoid seeking care all together. Given this reality, the best kind of care helps incorporate these unique differences to empower individuals and boost outcomes.
How culturally responsive care can help
Healthcare providers improve care by understanding how culture and ethnicity shape health outcomes and management. Culturally responsive care means acting on this knowledge in targeted ways that help empower individuals and reduce health disparities across communities.
Culturally responsive care is based on a rejection of a one-size-fits-all approach. Providers and clinicians who practice this are able to customize care for each individual, starting with basic personalization such as language, customized behavioral or nutrition interventions that account for food preferences based on culture, and flexibility in how to achieve desired health outcomes.
Care providers must also talk to family members, caregivers, and other doctors about an individual’s health concerns or needs in a culturally sensitive way. For example, a clinician helping a Hispanic woman understand how to manage her elderly mother’s diabetes may provide guidance on how to prepare the mother’s favorite traditional foods in a health-promoting way, such as by substituting lard with olive oil or beef with chicken. If the woman speaks primarily Spanish, working with a Spanish-speaking clinician will provide a level of comfort while eliminating confusion.
Culturally responsive care leads to better health outcomes
Behavior change is hard, and even more so when so many of our actions and decisions are tied to who we are as individuals within a cultural context. Culturally responsive care makes it far more likely that we will be able to change our behaviors to improve our health.
An example of this dynamic in action is adherence to medication regimens. Studies show that medication adherence tends to be lower among minority racial and ethnic groups in the U.S. compared to their white peers. Among various other factors, cultural beliefs can affect medication adherence. For example, Chinese culture’s high regard for traditional herbal medicines may make a Chinese-American individuals hesitant to take medications prescribed by their doctor. The doctor can respond by describing the specific functions and importance of the medication, as well as by incorporating some herbal remedies into the treatment plan to increase the individual’s trust and comfort with the regimen.
As this example illustrates, culturally responsive care empowers individuals and their caregivers to make health-related choices that fit our unique lifestyles, preferences, beliefs, and values.
At Cecelia Health, we understand this importance and have a team of bilingual and multilingual clinicians who can deliver support in Spanish, Hindi, and Cantonese. Download our case study to learn more about how we deliver culturally responsive virtual care to our Spanish-speaking members.