Religion: An Overlooked Dimension of Cultural Competency

August 28, 2012

A Muslim patient wishes to alter his medication regimen during Ramadan… a Jewish patient insists on speaking with her rabbi before agreeing to a medical procedure… a Sikh family is incensed after a nurse shaves the beard and moustache of an elderly family member in a long-term care facility... a Christian woman wants to be assured that if something happens during her surgery, her surgeon will call a priest…

Health care professionals today face increasing diversity of religious and cultural beliefs within their patient populations - a diversity that they often find unfamiliar and as such, are ill-equipped to understand and proactively address. In the United States 84% of the population self-identify as religious, and while the United States is a majority Christian nation (78%), this population is made of a diverse spectrum of different denominations, each with its own unique beliefs and practices. Increasing and shifting immigration trends add an additional layer of complexity to this dynamic.

Unfortunately, religion is a dimension of cultural competency that is often overlooked or subsumed under the larger cultural competency “umbrella.” The mission of the Tanenbaum Center for Interreligious Understanding is to combat religious prejudice. In our Health Care program we seek to achieve this goal by providing practical educational tools, training, and resources to assist health care providers to effectively, and respectfully interact with patients around the topic of religion.

Religion tends to be most top of mind in end-of-life situations. However, this aspect of identity emerges in a number of circumstances – such as modesty, diet, reproductive health, conscience rules, and acceptance of drugs and procedures. For both hospital administrators and practitioners, addressing the religious needs of patients in all its dimensions, improves the quality of care and patient satisfaction. Conversely, a lack of religio-cultural competency and sensitivity when working with patients erodes trust, hampers communication, and can ultimately marginalize certain cultural and religious groups.

As part of an effort to reach out to physicians earlier in their career, we are particularly proud of our work with Maria Fareri Children’s Hospital at Westchester Medical Center, where we are developing curriculum and trainings for their pediatric residents to build skills in religio-cultural competence. Funding for this project has been generously provided by the Edmond de Rothschild Foundations.

While training physicians and nursing staff to communicate with patients around the topic of religion is, and must continue to be, a key piece for furthering the cause of health equity, we must also be mindful that, for a health care institution to truly succeed, cultural competency efforts must take a system wide approach. Hospital leadership must be fully committed to cultural competency education at all levels of the institution. Key staff (from administrators and admissions staff to security guards and housekeeping) who interact with patients outside of a clinical role must also fully understand the role that religion plays in the health care decisions that patients make and how it impacts their activities of daily living while at a health care facility.

Here at Tanenbaum we look forward to joining all of you in your efforts to “eliminate health care disparities and improve quality of care for each and every patient.


Mark Fowler
Managing Director of Programs
Tanenbaum Center for Interreligious Understanding

The views, opinions and positions expressed in this blog are solely those of the individual authors and do not represent the views, opinions and positions of Equity of Care.

Other posts from August 2012:

Equity of Care: The Physician Link (August 17, 2012)


back to top