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Cultural competency

When we think of culture, we might first think of race or ethnicity. But culture means much more than that. It’s a major factor in how people respond to health services. And it affects their approach to coping with illness, getting care and working toward recovery. Check out the resources listed on this page to learn more.

How culture and competency work together

How culture and competency work together

Racial, ethnic, religious and social groups have diverse:


  • Actions

  • Beliefs

  • Communications 

  • Customs

  • Institutions

  • Languages

  • Thoughts 

  • Values


A person’s culture includes all these things. Having competency means we can function effectively in the context of these diverse cultural factors that our members and their communities represent. The goals of cultural competency? To increase the quality of services, to reduce health care disparities and to improve health outcomes.

Culturally competent providers

Culturally competent providers

Patient satisfaction and positive health outcomes are linked to good communication between members and providers. Each segment of our population requires special sensitivities and strategies to embrace cultural differences. Culturally competent providers:


  • Effectively communicate with patients 

  • Understand their individual concerns

  • Ensure patients understand their care plans

Standards for culturally and linguistically appropriate services

Standards for culturally and linguistically appropriate services

Help us ensure that members receive covered services without concern for: 


  • Age

  • Ability to pay

  • Ability to speak English 

  • Ethnicity

  • Gender

  • Genetic information

  • Medical history

  • Mental or physical disability

  • National origin

  • Race

  • Religion

  • Sexual orientation

Participating providers treat all members with dignity and respect, as required by federal law. This includes:


  • Honoring members’ beliefs

  • Being sensitive to cultural diversity

  • Fostering respect for members’ cultural backgrounds

How health literacy affects cultural competency

The Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act of 2010, Title V, defines health literacy as the degree to which an individual has the capacity to obtain, communicate, process and understand basic health information and services to make appropriate health decisions.


In short, how well can patients find, understand and use information to make good decisions? Anyone who provides health info and services to others also needs health literacy skills to:


  • Help people find info and services

  • Communicate about health and health care

  • Process what people are explicitly and implicitly asking for

  • Understand how to provide useful info and services

  • Decide which info and services work best for different situations and people, so they can act in their own best interest

Check out these training resources

Here are a variety of learning opportunities on cultural competency and health literacy.

The Patient Safety Network (PSNet) offers Effective Communication Tools for Healthcare Professionals: Addressing Health Literacy, Cultural Competency, and Limited English Proficiency. This online course can help you communicate better with patients who have poor English skills and limited health literacy.


The Health Literacy Universal Precautions Toolkit is a free set of tools to help primary care practices improve interactions between patients and staff.


AHRQ also offers two guides for defining cultural needs in managed care and creating services for them:


A Physician's Practical Guide to Culturally Competent Care is an online program. The American Medical Association, American Academy of Family Physicians and the American College of Physicians endorse this program. And it provides up to 9 hours of category 1 AMA credits at no cost.

Our Cultural Competency Program is designed to provide guidance and technical assistance to help facilitate compliance with applicable federal and state laws, regulations, standards, and policies.

Also of interest: