Newcomers to the United States face a multitude of obstacles and challenges when interacting with our health care system. While, the U.S. health care system offers cutting edge technology in treating the physical systems of illnesses and injuries, there is definite room for improvement when addressing mental and spiritual needs, especially for those patients that are unfamiliar with the culture and health care system of the United States. In an article addressing the cultural gap in health care, Maria Cordelia Carcamo expressed the feeling that, “Doctors just need to realize that we’re human beings too. They need to work at more communication, more understanding of other cultures. It seems so basic, but it still doesn’t happen.”
Thankfully, health care practitioners are beginning to take note of these cultural and religious communication gaps and are trying to implement changes to address the diverse spiritual and cultural needs of their patients. Stephanie Taylor, the director of cultural competency at WellStar Health Systems in Atlanta is one of many health care professionals seeking to improve religio-cultural competent health care. Taylor explains that “the first part of the journey is to be able to communicate in a meaningful way with our patients and often that starts by showing respect: Respect of the culture, respect of the beliefs, respect that we might be different – but we will strive to find common ground.”
Roswell Park Cancer Institute in Buffalo, New York, has sought to develop the culture of respect that Taylor describes through their Pastoral Care Program
led by director Beth Lenegan. According to Lenegan, the push to develop pastoral care at Roswell, came when the Joint Commission began stressing the need for spiritual care and support within the hospital setting. Through interviews with 40 different clergy members in the area Roswell Park pinpointed aspects of cultural and spiritual differences that were causing friction such as diet, end-of-life, modesty, and family customs.
Roswell Park then began implemented changes to address these issues. These changes included looking in to purchasing longer hospital gowns that would make patients with modesty issues at ease, offering bibles and other religious texts in multiple languages, a grief resource booklet called “Caring Across Cultures and Belief Systems,” and introducing “patient navigators” that are in charge of helping patients and their families manage the medical system and ensure they access the services that they need.
Roswell Park Cancer Institute is just one of many health care facilities that are recognizing the need for multi-faith spiritual care and are filling that need through their pastoral care programs. Through our work with chaplains here at Tanenbaum, we have learned that many hospitals are unaware of what a valuable resource chaplains can be, both as a source of spiritual support and comfort for patients and often as cultural brokers between patients and practitioners. We hope to play a part in promoting a closer collaboration between practitioners and chaplains and hope that pastoral care will continue to play an integral role in building inclusive health care settings.