Feeling Around the Edges of Cultural Competence Through Performance and Discussion

by Catherine Rogers, Marketing and Communication Design Manager

For researchers, understanding cultural competence means more than just knowing about historical and current contexts. It means putting down the clipboard, taking off the lab coat, and connecting with others through thoughtful, respectful exchanges.

As demonstrated recently through two one-act plays at the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute in Boston, MA, the edges of cultural competence can be blurred by our assumptions, past experience, and personal biases. The core, however, remains clear: Cultural competence helps build a firm foundation upon which public trust in research can be built.

The two-hour symposium featured The Bok Players, an interactive theater group that examines complex issues of human interaction, and a panel of experts from areas such as health disparities, human subjects protections, and research subject advocacy.

Through the two distinct pieces, and the discussions, questions, and role-playing that followed, the nearly 100 research professionals in the audience explored the various challenges that arise in the subject recruitment process. Although each plays’ characters were different—one featured the mother of a potential subject and a researcher, the other brought to life an investigator, a research assistant, and a leader of a Jewish philanthropic organization—they both demonstrated the extent to which lack of respect, empathy, and honesty can give rise to distrust, frustration, and coercion.

Here are a few other take home lessons from the performance:

  • Watch your assumptions. Just because a woman has a child doesn’t mean she’s a “Mrs.”
  • Show how you’re alike. Get to know the population you’re working with and emphasize your similarities. Trade a lab coat for street clothes or business attire.
  • Take your time. Don’t rush a visit with a potential subject or their advocate.
  • Be respectful with how information is presented. Even though more than half of the population has limited health literacy, strive to give full disclosure and accurate information about risks and side effects.
  • Make it personal. Try to validate a patient’s concerns rather than gloss over them. It’s OK to say, “this must be really hard for you.”

What suggestions do you have about achieving cultural competence? Please let us know!