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How Culture Influences Health

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  • Culture is a pattern of ideas, customs and behaviours shared by a particular people or society. It is constantly evolving.
  • The speed of cultural evolution varies. It increases when a group migrates to and incorporates components of a new culture into their culture of origin.
  • Children often struggle with being ‘between cultures’– balancing the ‘old’ and the ‘new’. They essentially belong to both, whereas their parents often belong predominantly to the ‘old’ culture.
  • One way of thinking about cultures is whether they are primarily ‘collectivist’ or ‘individualist’. Knowing the difference can help health professionals with diagnosis and with tailoring a treatment plan that includes a larger or smaller group.
  • The influence of culture on health is vast.  It affects perceptions of health, illness and death, beliefs about causes of disease, approaches to health promotion, how illness and pain are experienced and expressed, where patients seek help, and the types of treatment patients prefer.
  • Both health professionals and patients are influenced by their respective cultures. Canada’s health system has been shaped by the mainstream beliefs of historically dominant cultures.
  • Cultural bias may result in very different health-related preferences and perceptions. Being aware of and negotiating such differences are skills known as ‘cultural competence’. This perspective allows care providers to ask about various beliefs or sources of care specifically, and to incorporate new awareness into diagnosis and treatment planning.
  • Demonstrating awareness of a patient’s culture can promote trust, better health care, lead to higher rates of acceptance of diagnoses and improve treatment adherence.

What is culture?

Culture is the patterns of ideas, customs and behaviours shared by a particular people or society. These patterns identify members as part of a group and distinguish members from other groups. Culture may include all or a subset of the following characteristics:1

Given the number of possible factors influencing any culture, there is naturally great diversity within any cultural group. Generalizing specific characteristics of one culture can be helpful, but be careful not to over-generalize.

  • ethnicity
  • language
  • religion and spiritual beliefs
  • gender
  • socio-economic class
  • age
  • sexual orientation
  • geographic origin
  • group history
  • education
  • upbringing
  • life experience

Culture is:

  • dynamic and evolving,
  • learned and passed on through generations,
  • shared among those who agree on the way they name and understand reality,
  • often identified ‘symbolically’, through language, dress, music and behaviours, and
  • integrated into all aspects of an individual’s life.2

Case examples

Compare the two stories that follow and imagine how each child might react differently to a similar situation, such as a problem at school, a criticism, or their mother becoming ill.

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