Cultural Competence: What is it and why do I need it?

As veterinarians we are trained to treat many different species, so we get the concept of diversity… at least diversity in the animal kingdom. But each animal is attached to a person and that person brings to each encounter unique cultural perspectives that will impact communication, decisions, and ultimately patient outcomes. The face of the world is changing. Racial and ethnic minorities are fast become a majority. People are living longer — and living better with unique abilities. Family roles as well as the definition of family is evolving.

Cultural competence is defined by the Association of American Medical Colleges as “a set of congruent behaviors, knowledge, attitudes, and policies that come together in a system, organization, or among professionals that enables effective work in cross-cultural situations.” Cultural competency does not require mastery of norms, values, and practices of all cultures but rather requires recognition of one’s own biases, consciousness of cultural dynamics, and a willingness to adapt.

As AVMA Future Leaders, we believe the sustainability of veterinary medicine for the next 150 years is contingent upon our ability to embrace, understand, and apply cultural competence in all fields of veterinary medicine. As veterinarians we understand comparative physiology and the integration of pharmacology, but we have difficulty as a profession acknowledging the critical importance of culturally competent communication.

Culturally competent communication can be as simple as acknowledging personal bias, as straightforward as learning second language acquisition, and as complex as recognizing non-verbal cues in body language. Either way, the result is better understanding and engagement in the care for the animal at the center of the conversation. And that’s the importance of cultural competence and why we chose this topic.

Author’s note:  Directly compiled from the efforts of the 2012-2013 AVMA Future Leaders class with particular thanks and acknowledgement of Drs. Jenifer Chatfield and William Hill for their works.

2 thoughts on “Cultural Competence: What is it and why do I need it?

  1. I am in Alabama and I want to know why when a person brings a dog in for euthanasia, the sorry veterinarian can keep that dog in a cage for as long as he wants to drain blood from that animal to do his surgeries. Then, when the dog becomes weak from the blood drainage, he is euthanized and taken to the landfill. That happened to me several times with a vet in Mobile, Al over the years. His employee told me how those dogs suffered at his hands.
    I want to know WHY?

    • Sharon, if you have a complaint about a veterinarian, you need to contact your state veterinary medical board and file a complaint. Veterinary medicine is regulated at the state level, and the state vet board is the group that needs to know so they can investigate the issue.