More culturally sensitive care needed in local hospitals


A PhD student from VUB has discovered that hospitals in Flanders and even in Brussels are often ill-equipped to deal with the cultural diversity with which they are more regularly faced

‘A major challenge’

As society becomes more diverse and doctors find themselves treating a more varied patient population than ever, a Brussels researcher has called for urgent changes to the local medical system to ensure it provides culturally sensitive care.

Social health scientist Rose-Lima Van Keer, a PhD student at Vrije Universiteit Brussel (VUB), conducted research showing that cultural differences and inappropriate hospital policies can make interactions between patients, doctors and relatives difficult, exacerbating already unpleasant situations.

She recommends urgent measures such as more support in hospitals, changes in medical training and efforts by the government to achieve more culturally sensitive care. “Providing good care with constructive communication and decision-making is a major challenge, especially during serious situations where the patient’s life is in the balance,” Van Keer says.


When it comes to patients with a different cultural background, she continues, “interculturality adds an extra challenge. We must remember that super-diversity is a relatively new phenomenon, and many doctors and health care providers don’t yet have the necessary awareness or skills to deal with it properly.”

Van Keer surveyed 44 intercultural mediators working in hospitals in Brussels and Flanders. She also followed 18 seriously ill patients from ethnic and cultural minorities, their family members and care providers in a hospital for 10 months.

She identified various problems, including in the exchange of medical information and end-of-life decision-making. These are caused by factors such as differences in ethnic-cultural background, what people expect from care provision, the context in which they find themselves and inflexible departmental policies and procedures.

I sometimes found that patients are being talked to in a language they do not understand

- Researcher Rose-Lima Van Keer

“I also sometimes found that patients are being talked to in a language they do not understand,” she says. “In intercultural situations it is extremely important that the parties involved have sufficient insight into each other’s perspectives, context and background. If this doesn’t happen, ethnic-cultural tensions and prejudices can easily arise that seriously hamper good communication and decision-making.”

To avoid miscommunication and conflicts and to optimise care for patients with a different ethnic background, Van Keer makes a series of recommendations. For example, it is important that hospitals work with health-care providers, patients, their families and intercultural mediators on adapted procedures and policies that take cultural diversity into account.

Such collaboration should be initiated by hospital managers. She also wants to see more attention paid to interculturality and communication by incorporating cultural competence into medical training courses.

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