The Doctor-Patient Relationship: Working with Patients of Different Cultures

SUNY, New YorkAt the heart of New York City, the SUNY College of Optometry – University Eye Center welcomes many minority patients such as African Americans, Hispanics and Asians. As a member of SUNY’s Class of 2015, exposure to such a culturally diverse patient base is truly a blessing.

As a physician, the optometrist needs to learn how manage many different cultures depending on the demographic of the practice. Certain aspects of a culture can include clothing, food, art as well as more intrinsic aspects such as values, norms and expectations. Since they can significantly influence the outcome of the vision exam, one needs to be culturally competent in order to provide an effective patient care. Here are some suggestions:

1. Build a bridge that will overcome the gap between cultures. An effective assessment of various cultures is crucial in building a stable communication channel. One essential component is to understand the norms and values of other cultures. For example, learning a new language or attending meetings at cultural centers are useful steps. One of my supervisors in clinic at SUNY Optometry would say, “let me guess where you are from?”. This simple statement makes the patient feel at ease in your chair and makes the exam fun!

Exam room, chair2. Learn how to educate your patient. In certain cultures, it may be unacceptable to discuss certain sexual diseases such as Chlamydia and others. Even so, it may be necessary to communicate to the patient the necessity of such information and how it can impact their vision. The patient may not be able to understand the link and as a result resist the disclosure of such information. Thus it is critical for the optometrist to set expectations and ensure that the patient understands the consequences.

3. Be inquisitive, try to understand the reasoning behind the patient’s decision-making process. For example, the patient may not be compliant in taking certain drugs and opt for an alternative approach such as natural medicine. In certain cultures it is the norm to go for an alternative therapy and reduce the use of standard drugs. Therefore, it is imperative for the optometrist to try to understand what these alternative medicines do.

4. Monitor the demographic changes in your area. Depending on the demographic of the practice it may be a good idea to have a staff, which reflects the ethnic diversity of the area of practice. The staff would provide an important support to the optometrist and useful feedback on the reasoning behind certain decision-making behavior. Conversely, it is key for the optometrist to train the staff on the reasoning behind certain vision related decisions.

In a nutshell, keep an open mind! The optometrist needs to understand that there are different views which are influenced by the patient’s background and culture. In order to maintain good patient communication, the optometrist needs to listen, respect and understand the patient’s point of view.



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