The Increasing Importance of Cultural Competence in Global Health

Written By: Adeyoola Adeniji

Culture plays such an integral role in the lives of individuals. It influences our beliefs, morals, and behaviors. However, sometimes global health issues are approached without taking the time to fully understand the social dynamics, political structure, and overall lifestyle of global communities. Furthermore, global health solutions are proposed without fully grasping the fundamental beliefs and values of the population being served.

Cultural competence takes on various definitions. Using The Process of Cultural Competence in the Delivery of Healthcare Services model by Campinha-Bacote, cultural competence can be defined as a developmental process that enables healthcare professionals to provide both effective and appropriate services to diverse clients in cross-cultural settings. According to the article, cultural competence requires a combination of cultural awareness, cultural knowledge, cultural skill, cultural encounters, and cultural desire[1].

Cultural competence is becoming increasingly important in our rapidly globalizing society. Issues that seem thousands of miles away can develop into domestic health concerns. For example, the recent Zika virus epidemic began in Brazil in 2015. By 2016, local transmission of the virus was reported in over 20 countries and territories throughout the Americas, including the United States [2]. Even the 2014 Ebola outbreak spread to the U.S., with the first cases of infection occurring in Texas. Thus, the growing interconnectedness of our society means that global health issues are becoming more relevant in our daily lives. Health professionals are increasing efforts to address global health issues, whether it be through traveling overseas or working in a domestic agency with an international health focus. This creates a greater need for knowledge on how to effectively interact with global populations and communities. Therefore, health professionals hoping to address global health issues must possess cultural competence in order to propose viable solutions for the intended population.

The dynamic nature of culture poses another significant reason why cultural competence is growing in importance. Culture is not static, but constantly changes as communities evolve [3]. As a result, the development of cultural competence must be a continuous learning process. Past knowledge on how to effectively interact with global communities and address global health issues may no longer be applicable. Often times, cultural competence is perceived as a skill set that can be attained; however, it is actually an ongoing process that must be prioritized as culture and communities continue to change.

Despite the growing importance of this topic, there is one major limitation. Cultural processes, including customs, beliefs, and practices usually differ within the same ethnic or cultural group[4]. As a Nigerian, I have interacted with others who make incomplete assumptions about the cultural traditions and values of Nigerians as a whole. I remember a particular conversation with a fellow African who exclaimed, “Wow, Nigerians look so different from each other.” Not only do members of the same ethnic group differ physically, they also have distinct cultural processes. Therefore, what is learned from interacting with certain members of a cultural group may not necessarily apply to the group as a whole. As mentioned before, cultural competence is an ongoing process due to the dynamic nature of both cultures and individuals.  

As aspiring health professionals, we must start the cultural competence developmental process now. Although it sounds cliché, taking the time to learn from others is extremely important. The knowledge on how to effectively interact with diverse communities is an invaluable asset crucial to the public health field.

Edited by: Casey Parker 


Adeyoola Adeniji is a third year undergraduate student in the College of Health and Human Performance. She is studying Health Education and Behavior with a concentration in Community Health Promotion.