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10 Tips for Finding a Culturally Sensitive Health Care Provider

A doctor who respects your beliefs and understands your background can benefit your health


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In the U.S., certain populations shoulder a disproportionate burden of disease and death across a range of health conditions. Black adults are more likely than people from any other race to get and die from many types of cancer. Lesbian, gay and bisexual adults have more risk factors for cardiovascular disease than straight adults.

The brain is no exception when it comes to health disparities. Women, for example, are at greater risk for both stroke and dementia than men. In fact, women account for about two-thirds of dementia cases worldwide. Dementia rates are also higher among Black and Hispanic adults than among whites. At the same time, these groups often experience discrimination when seeking care, according to a new report on inequities in brain health from AARP’s Global Council on Brain Health (GCBH).

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“If we want to improve brain health for all, we have to pay more attention to the needs of those at greatest risk of poor health and address social conditions that stand in the way,” says Sarah Lenz Lock, senior vice president of policy and brain health at AARP and executive director of the GCBH. “Cognitive decline is not inevitable, and everyone should have the opportunity to experience better brain health as they age.”

The GCBH report includes several recommendations for overcoming inequities. Many are aimed at health care providers and policymakers, but there’s advice for individuals, too. Notably, the GCBH encourages all adults to find a health care provider who listens to and understands their cultural values. This is often referred to as culturally sensitive care.

Healthy Habits for Your Brain

Did you know everyday habits can reduce risks to your brain health as you age? Here are six that can help keep your brain healthy, according to the Global Council on Brain Health:  

  1. Be social.
  2. Find ways to engage and stimulate your brain.
  3. Manage stress.
  4. Stay physically active.
  5. Get enough sleep.
  6. Eat a healthy diet.

Finding the right doctor could improve your health

Benefits abound when it comes to having a culturally sensitive health care provider, says Lisa Cooper, M.D., founder and director of the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Equity.

“Having that kind of care means that a person can communicate more effectively with the people taking care of them. They feel more that they are a partner in their care, and they feel that they can trust that people have their best interests at heart,” says Cooper, author of the book Why Are Health Disparities Everyone’s Problem?

The impact of this bond translates to better treatment outcomes. When patients trust their health care provider, research shows they’re more likely to adhere to their medications and try preventive recommendations, like diet and exercise. They’re also more likely to provide feedback on what’s not working “because they feel like they can be honest with you,” says Gary Ferguson, a naturopathic doctor and director of outreach and engagement at Washington State University’s Institute for Research and Education to Advance Community Health.

All well and good, but how do you find a doctor that’s right for you?

It’s important to note that some people don’t have options when it comes to choosing their health care providers. Rural residents, for example, may have access to a limited number of clinics, hospitals and other health facilities. (The GCBH report notes that more than 120 hospitals in rural areas have closed in the last decade.)

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For those with choices, Cooper likes to use the acronym R-E-L-A-T-E:

1. Look for a provider who Respects you.

2. Make sure they Empathize with you, “that they can relate to what it means to be in your shoes,” Cooper says.

3. Find a provider who Listens to you.

4. A good provider will Ask you questions and won’t make assumptions about you.

5. The right doctor will Talk to you about your whole life, not just your medical problems.

6. Find a doctor who Engages you and involves you when making decisions about your care.

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A few other tips:

7. Be an active participant. “The other thing I do is try to tell people that they have to do their part,” Cooper says. This involves preparing for appointments, being honest with your health care provider about your concerns and putting their recommendations into action when you get home. Ask questions during your visit, and know that if you get a screening test, such as a cognitive assessment, there may be variations available, some of which are tailored for certain languages and cultures, according to the GCBH report.

8. Do your research. If the clinic or health system includes profiles of their providers, check to see if any share a similar background (or have work experience in that background) or speak the same language, Ferguson says. You can also ask for recommendations from family and friends in your community.

Having a doctor of the same race or ethnicity doesn’t guarantee that they’ll understand everything about your background, Cooper says, but research shows so-called concordance is associated with improved patient satisfaction and health outcomes. 

9. It’s OK to break up. Know that you can break up with your provider if it’s not working out, Ferguson says. “If you're not getting the kind of care you feel you deserve or if it’s not working for you, then find somebody else,” he says.

10. Bring someone to your appointments. It’s hard to remember everything you need to tell the doctor, and then to recall everything the doctor tells you. Asking a trusted friend or family member to accompany you to your appointments could help limit any lapses in patient-provider communication, Cooper says.  

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