Sensitivity in the healthcare sector

The importance of being culturally sensitive when dealing with patients

A few years ago, my grandmother had a stroke.

It was a fatal brain haemorrhage, and I was the one who found her.

Lena hadn’t turned up to her volunteer job the day before so I decided to check on her, as she lived alone in an apartment complex nearby.

Peeking through the window, words can’t describe the stress and horror of seeing my grandmother on the floor of her apartment.

We broke in and called an ambulance, hopeful that she was still going to be alright.

When the paramedics came, they got to work immediately as I stood in the background trying not to fall apart, answering any questions about her medical conditions, finding her medications and identification, and letting them know what I could about her health.

They placed her on a gurney while I followed them anxiously holding my grandmother’s handbag, wallet, medications list and personal belongings.

But when they were just about to drive off, one of the paramedics said to me: don’t drive after the ambulance. Take your time if you plan to go to the hospital. We still need to contact the family first.

And that’s when I realised: the paramedics didn’t think we were related.

I come from a biracial family, one part South-East Asian and one part Scandinavian.

Lena was from Sweden – but I don’t look Swedish.

Perhaps the paramedic thought I was her carer, or a worker at the senior housing complex.

The paramedic certainly looked sheepish when she saw me hours later in the hospital, at my grandmother’s bedside along with other family members (who look just like me).

Nothing felt more like a kick in the guts than losing my grandmother and having no acknowledgement as to why this woman was important to me.

I still think about this exchange all the time.

A simple question could have cleared everything up at the very beginning: how are you related to the patient?

So here are some tips from myself to healthcare workers when it comes to dealing with people of different race, ethnicity, sexuality and more:

  • Don’t assume people aren’t related, just because they don’t look alike. People may be related but not have the same skin or hair colour, that’s just how genetics works sometimes. Also be aware that people may have different surnames to one another but still be related. If a person presents with a patient, ask questions to verify the nature of the relationship. For example: how are you related to the patient?
  • Don’t assume that people who are a different ethnicity don’t (or do) speak English. Many people of different backgrounds (including myself) were born and bred in Australia, while others weren’t. Gauge the situation based on the level of conversation. Arrange an interpreter if it becomes obvious that the level of English is poor.
  • Don’t assume heterosexuality or gender identity. Many patients that come to see you may identify as lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, intersex or another sexuality, or be gender diverse. This may impact their health needs and status, for example, the need for birth control or what type of advice should be given in relation to safe sex practices. Be aware that couples may present to you who are same sex couples. Again, ask questions to verify the nature of the relationship so you are able to address their partner in an appropriate and respectful way, acknowledging their relationship with the patient.
  • Be aware of varying beliefs or approaches people may have regarding health, depending on their cultural or ethnic background. For example, Aboriginal Australians subscribe to a holistic approach to health that encompasses body, mind, spirit, land, environment, custom and socio-economic status.
  • Be aware that some religious beliefs may impact a patient’s approach to their healthcare.
  • Be aware of any assumptions you may have regarding age. Many times I have attended a healthcare facility and because I look young, the healthcare practitioner will say, “Is this your boyfriend?” or “Does your boyfriend want to wait outside?” In fact, he is my husband and has been for some time. Again, ask questions: “Is this your partner? Does he/she want to be involved?”

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