How culture influences health beliefs

All cultures have systems of health beliefs to explain what causes illness, how it can be cured or treated, and who should be involved in the process. The extent to which patients perceive patient education as having cultural relevance for them can have a profound effect on their reception to information provided and their willingness to use it. Western industrialized societies such as the United States, which see disease as a result of natural scientific phenomena, advocate medical treatments that combat microorganisms or use sophisticated technology to diagnose and treat disease. Other societies believe that illness is the result of supernatural phenomena and promote prayer or other spiritual interventions that counter the presumed disfavor of powerful forces.Cultural issues play a major role in patient compliance. One study showed that a group of Cambodian adults with minimal formal education made considerable efforts to comply with therapy but did so in a manner consistent with their underlying understanding of how medicines and the body work.

Asians/Pacific Islanders are a large ethnic group in the United States. There are several important cultural beliefs among Asians and Pacific Islanders that nurses should be aware of. The extended family has significant influence, and the oldest male in the family is often the decision maker and spokesperson. The interests and honor of the family are more important than those of individual family members. Older family members are respected, and their authority is often unquestioned. Among Asian cultures, maintaining harmony is an important value; therefore, there is a strong emphasis on avoiding conflict and direct confrontation. Due to respect for authority, disagreement with the recommendations of health care professionals is avoided. However, lack of disagreement does not indicate that the patient and family agree with or will follow treatment recommendations. Among Chinese patients, because the behavior of the individual reflects on the family, mental illness or any behavior that indicates lack of self-control may produce shame and guilt. As a result, Chinese patients may be reluctant to discuss symptoms of mental illness or depression.

Some sub-populations of cultures, such as those from India and Pakistan, are reluctant to accept a diagnosis of severe emotional illness or mental retardation because it severely reduces the chances of other members of the family getting married. In Vietnamese culture, mystical beliefs explain physical and mental illness. Health is viewed as the result of a harmonious balance between the poles of hot and cold that govern bodily functions. Vietnamese don’t readily accept Western mental health counseling and interventions, particularly when self-disclosure is expected. However, it is possible to accept assistance if trust has been gained.

Russian immigrants frequently view U.S. medical care with a degree of mistrust. The Russian experience with medical practitioners has been an authoritarian relationship in which free exchange of information and open discussion was not usual. As a result, many Russian patients find it difficult to question a physician and to talk openly about medical concerns. Patients expect a paternalistic approach-the competent health care professional does not ask patients what they want to do, but tells them what to do. This reliance on physician expertise undermines a patient’s motivation to learn more about self-care and preventive health behaviors.

Although Hispanics share a strong heritage that includes family and religion, each subgroup of the Hispanic population has distinct cultural beliefs and customs. Older family members and other relatives are respected and are often consulted on important matters involving health and illness. Fatalistic views are shared by many Hispanic patients who view illness as God’s will or divine punishment brought about by previous or current sinful behavior. Hispanic patients may prefer to use home remedies and may consult a folk healer, known as a curandero.

Many African-Americans participate in a culture that centers on the importance of family and church. There are extended kinship bonds with grandparents, aunts, uncles, cousins, or individuals who are not biologically related but who play an important role in the family system. Usually, a key family member is consulted for important health-related decisions. The church is an important support system for many African-Americans.

Cultural aspects common to Native Americans usually include being oriented in the present and valuing cooperation. Native Americans also place great value on family and spiritual beliefs. They believe that a state of health exists when a person lives in total harmony with nature. Illness is viewed not as an alteration in a person’s physiological state, but as an imbalance between the ill person and natural or supernatural forces. Native Americans may use a medicine man or woman, known as a shaman.

As can be seen, each ethnic group brings its own perspectives and values to the health care system, and many health care beliefs and health practices differ from those of the traditional American health care culture. Unfortunately, the expectation of many health care professionals has been that patients will conform to mainstream values. Such expectations have frequently created barriers to care that have been compounded by differences in language and education between patients and providers from different backgrounds.

Cultural differences affect patients’ attitudes about medical care and their ability to understand, manage, and cope with the course of an illness, the meaning of a diagnosis, and the consequences of medical treatment. Patients and their families bring culture specific ideas and values related to concepts of health and illness, reporting of symptoms, expectations for how health care will be delivered, and beliefs concerning medication and treatments. In addition, culture specific values influence patient roles and expectations, how much information about illness and treatment is desired, how death and dying will be managed, bereavement patterns, gender and family roles, and processes for decision making.

Cross-cultural variations also exist within cultures. Strategies that you can use in working with patients from different cultures as displayed in Table 14.

Table 14

Strategies for Working With Patients In Cross-Cultural Settings

  • Learn about the cultural traditions of the patients you care for.
  • Pay close attention to body language, lack of response, or expressions of anxiety that may signal that the patient or family is in conflict but perhaps hesitant to tell you.
  • Ask the patient and family open-ended questions to gain more information about their assumptions and expectations.
  • Remain nonjudgmental when given information that reflects values that differ from yours.
  • Follow the advice given by patients about appropriate ways to facilitate communication within families and between families and other health care providers.
SOURCE: Mc Laughlin, L., & Braun, K. (1998). “Asian and Pacific Islander cultural values: Considerations for health care decision-making.” Health and Social Work, 23 (2), 116-126.

Doing a cultural assessment