If you are like me, the events that took place in Paris the other week have left you shocked, angered, and – ultimately – deeply saddened by the senselessness of it all. I don’t profess to understand the many complex factors that result in one group of people attacking another, and that isn’t even really what worries me the most. What concerns me is that such attacks only serve to deepen the cultural divides that already exist in our society and exacerbates the “them and us” mentality. At a time when our world is getting smaller and we should be moving towards greater understanding and unity, aggression has only pushed us further apart.
One of the unique things about health care is that it stands somewhat apart from the rest of society in this regard (or at least it should), because in health care there is only really an “us”. Regardless of cultural backgrounds, our patients want the same thing as we do – to be as healthy as possible so they can get on with their lives. I’m not saying it is always easy. There are often significant variations in cultural perceptions and beliefs between members of the health care team and their patients, and these differences can create serious ethical and logistical challenges. Culture is dynamic and diversity often exists within any single culture, so there are simple no “one size fits all” solutions to the dilemmas we face. The ongoing journey towards a health care system that equally supports all cultures is a difficult process, and we are certainly not there yet. But I do believe we are headed in the right direction.
In a small way, the health care system serves as an example of how people of all backgrounds can work together for the benefit of all. And maybe when we strive to recognize and respect differences, we push back just a little against the larger forces that seek to divide us. What is clear to me is that the more we understand and appreciate what distinguishes our patients’ cultural values, beliefs and practices from our own, the better care we can provide.