When thinking about cultural and religious competency in health care, one of the most essential case studies (as anyone in Medical Anthropology will share) is a book called “The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down” by Anne Fadiman.
The premise of the story is the struggle of a Hmong refugee family whose daughter, Lia, is diagnosed with an epileptic seizure disorder. Because of cultural and religious beliefs surrounding the soul, scars, and death, among other aspects of care, there is a constant butting of heads between the family and the medical team, both of whom have Lia’s best interests at heart. Interestingly, the tensions are often confounded by the language barrier. But really, the issues at hand in “The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down” go beyond the language barrier in terms of complexity – no translator would be able to fully solve Lia’s case. The story is heart wrenching and an incredible learning tool for anyone, not just those in the health care field.
The cultural competency movement is capable of dynamic growth. In Lia’s case, it really was about more than getting a translator or just requesting a specific meal. At Tanenbaum, we recognize how profound the need for religio-cultural competency in health care really is. Religious awareness and sensitivity is something that makes health care accessible to a range of faith traditions. But going even further, when undertaken taken with good intentions and better practices, religio-culturally competent care can improve the quality of life and ultimately save lives.
In health care, physicians can often feel like they are on a speeding train with the number of patients they have to see and no time to slow down. However, more often than not, a little sensitivity and genuine curiosity can go further in successfully treating patients than simply asking what the patients’ symptoms are. Sometimes, it seems that the “care” part of health care has been put on the back burner. However, it’s important to remember that with some education and respectful communication tools, the “care” part of health care can make an essential comeback. And that’s a moving train we can all get on board with.