Culturally affirming care aims to create an environment where every patient feels seen, heard, and respected. Nevertheless, it is crucial to acknowledge that well-meaning intentions may sometimes result in unforeseen challenges, leading healthcare providers to lose sight of the importance of authenticity and honesty in their interactions with patients.

Cultural Competency: Two Sides to Every Coin

Cultural competency refers to a healthcare provider’s ability to understand and respect patients’ diverse cultural backgrounds. Paired with affirming care, which is all about validating and supporting individual identities, they create a dynamic duo for delivering personalized, inclusive care.

However, sometimes, our best intentions can take a left turn. For example, cultural competency could unintentionally create an environment of “othering” – if a provider, in their attempt to be culturally competent, overly emphasizes a patient’s sexual orientation during a routine check-up, it may make the patient feel uncomfortably singled out, especially if the visit has nothing to do with their orientation.

Additionally, the attempts at affirming care might paint everyone with the same brush. Like when a provider labels all gay men as high-risk for HIV. Sure, some demographic groups have higher risks, but it’s not the whole picture. Such an oversimplification neglects individual behaviors and risk factors, leading to a stereotyped understanding of gay men’s health.

Authenticity and Honesty: The Trust-Makers

On the other side, authenticity and honesty can help foster trust and enable more robust patient-provider relationships. Imagine a healthcare provider who’s not clued in on using gender-neutral pronouns. Instead of faking it, they admit their shortcoming and make a genuine effort to learn – that’s authenticity right there.

In a comment on a LinkedIn post, a seasoned doctor shared a story about his interaction with a pre-surgical transgender patient. Despite his experience in cultural competency, the doctor made a mistake in his communication. But the patient’s response was eye-opening, advocating that pretending to “get it” (i.e., understand their journey) caused that patient more pain, sorrow, and shame than those who are anti-LGBTQ, and requested the physician simply just “be themselves”, because that’s all they are trying to do, too. This feedback highlights the profound value this patient places on genuine interactions and a provider’s willingness to learn from their own missteps, rather than be an expert at everything.

Honesty is particularly crucial when working with LGBTQ+ patients, as they are more likely to mistrust healthcare systems due to a history of discrimination, stigmatization, as well as lack of understanding and sensitivity. If a transgender patient is considering hormone therapy, the provider might say, “This is an important step in your journey. Like any treatment, hormone therapy has potential side effects. Let’s talk them through, so you can make the best decision.” The goal here? Blend truth with sensitivity, providing information without overwhelming or invalidating the patient.

It is true that the pursuit of culturally competent, affirming, honest, and authentic care can be fraught with difficulties. Nonetheless, these challenges are manageable. Through the mindful application of these principles, self-awareness, and an unwavering commitment to lifelong learning, we can cultivate a healthcare environment where all patients feel seen, heard, and respected.

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