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Many health care problems derive from failures of medical professionals to communicate effectively or to fully understand the cultural barriers their patients face.

Cultural Competency Training for Providers:  Cultural competency education helps ensure providers are sensitive towards diverse socio-cultural backgrounds and helps keep providers from stereotyping patients.  In 2005, New Jersey  enacted SB 144 requiring medical professionals to receive cultural competency training in order to graduate or get a license to practice in the state.  Each medical school in New Jersey is required to provide this training.  In 2005, California passed AB 1195 requiring mandatory continuing medical education courses to include cultural and linguistic training.  

Reducing Language Barriers: Patients with Limited English Proficiency are 19% more likely to suffer from adverse medical events than English-speaking patients (49% to 30%).  Hospitals can remove barriers by using multi-lingual signage, providing interpretive services, and making records of a patient's native language and communication needs.  During the 2003-2004 session, California enacted SB 853 requiring commercial health plans to ensure members' access to linguistic services and to report to state regulators steps being taken to improve the cultural competency of their services.  The state's Medicaid program requires all health plans to ensure patients' linguistic needs are met, including 24-hour access to interpretive services and documents in native languages.

Increasing Workforce Diversity:  Settings where patients see providers of their own race  leads to greater participation in care and greater adherence to treatment.  Yet, the health care workforce under-represents people of color - who are more likely than whites to practice in federally-designated underserved areas, to see patients of color, and to accept Medicaid patients.  To promote a more diverse workforce and reduce disparate treatment, states can create incentive or loan repayment programs for medical students who work in medically underserved areas.  In 2007, Minnesota enacted a new law (Chapter 137.42) to proactively recruit medical students in underserved areas. 

Resources:

National Health Law Program - A Guide to Incorporating Cultural Competency into health Professionals' Education and Training
National Health Law Program - "Language Barrier" an article in Pediatrics
Commonwealth Fund - Improving Quality and Achieving Equity: The Role of Cultural Competence in Reducing Racial and Ethnic Disparities in Health Care
The Commonwealth Fund - Language Proficiency and Adverse Events in US Hospitals: A Pilot Study
American Medical Student Association - Enriching Medicine Through Diversity
The Commonwealth Fund - A State Policy Agenda to Eliminate Racial and Ethnic Health Disparities