Culture affects health and healthcare in many ways and realizing this will impact success in disease management and achieving Wellness as well as interactions during mission and charity ventures.

“Health is intertwined with the fabric of life and the beliefs and practices that go with it, health and culture exist and interact within a broader social, political, an economic environment “

The classical definition of culture is “the complex whole which includes knowledge, belief, art, morals, customs, and any other capabilities inhabits acquired by man as a member of society” – EB Taylor 1871

No culture is ironclad or fixed, cultures always change, adapt, and evolve over time. It is fluid, more like a central tendency of which there may be variations.

Culture is not fixed but evolves – as people from one society or group come into contact with other people, or as they change overtime, their cultures change.

Being healthy is viewed differently depending on the culture. Being ‘Healthy’can mean the absence of disease such as in United States of America, it can mean representing a balance of mental, physical, emotional, and spiritual components such as in north American Indians. Being healthy can mean harmony of relations and interdependence on other people eg Buddhist .and in some cultures being healthy is synonymous with a large body size which can indicate high social status such as in some African countries for example Senegal.


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It’s imperative to understand the political environment, economic environment an historical environment of the region of origin of an individual (eg, American Indians or African -Americans) to fully comprehend their view of health and Wellness and how to help them impact their health and utilize healthcare resources appropriately. Poverty and social marginalization or inequity and inequality in social economic status, or countries torn apart by war – Religious war or civil war ( eg. Muslim/Islamic) can impact health and wellness.

Family and community involvement impact healthcare decision making for many people and patients. It is important to understand that some cultures prefer if not require family members to accompany the patient during the health care visit. Muslim /Islam, Hindu may require a male figure to accompany the patient, other cultures such as Latin American cultures and American Indian are very family oriented, and a successful health care encounter and follow through will not occur if family is excluded.

Religious practices & beliefs impact access to health and the perception of health. In Latin countries there are various practices such as   Catholicism, Santeria, Espiritism which provide advice and counsel and serve as an adjunct to medical care.   In Asian cultures there are multiple different types of religious or belief systems that can impact access to care and health. Beliefs such as Buddhism, Taoism, and Confucianism and Shinto provide guidance and can interfere with how authoritarian figures are viewed and how the transfer from life to death is viewed. Muslim /Islamic faith believe that they are spiritual beings having a human experience contrary to Christians who believe they are human beings searching for a spiritual experience. Cleanliness governs Muslim life, and this must be kept in mind with a hospitalized patient for example the need for showers as opposed to bed baths and the need to wash themselves instead of using toilet paper. Other beliefs such as Yin and Yang in Chinese culture which emphasizes the need for balance in all aspects of one’s life to avoid disease. Witchcraft and sorcery also are used in some African and Caribbean countries and are seen in certain cultures as the source of HIV infection which can interfere with appropriate treatment an intervention.


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Culture healing methods which may be used alongside Western medicine treatments such as herbal medicines and remedies. Ceremonies and certain dietary restrictions or specific inclusions depending on the experience also affect the way health and wellness are viewed.

So, understanding how all the above impacts the way a provider interacts with another person such as a patient or how a health care provider in a charity or mission clinic interacts with those they are  attending to will improve you, the provider’s, ability to meet the needs of your patient.  It’s important to be aware of these differences and to engage in conversation marked more by listening and observing then speaking initially. Also being aware of some of these alternative methods of staying healthy in some cultures will help direct your line of questioning and will provide you with knowledge of questions to ask to ensure that a full understanding of the health care needs is met.

Healthcare beyond borders