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Cultural Competence and Medical Education: Many Names, Many Perspectives, One Goal

Betancourt, Joseph R. MD, MPH

Academic Medicine:
doi: 10.1097/01.ACM.0000225211.77088.cb

Two contemporary reports from the Institute of Medicine—Crossing the Quality Chasm and Unequal Treatment—highlighted the importance of patient-centered care and cultural competence training as a means of improving the quality of health care for all and eliminating racial/ethnic disparities in health care. Previous efforts in cultural competence have aimed to teach about the attitudes, values, beliefs, and behavior of certain groups. A more effective approach is to learn a practical framework to guide inquiry with individual patients about how social, cultural, or economic factors influence their health values, beliefs, and behaviors. Rather than learning about individual cultures and their characteristics, this approach focuses on the issues that arise most commonly due to cultural differences, and how they may affect a physician’s interaction with any patient. At the end of the day, physicians need a practical set of tools and skills that will enable them to provide quality care to patients everywhere, from anywhere, with whatever differences in background that may exist, in what is likely to be a brief clinical encounter. Call it what you will, the field of cultural competence aims quite simply to assure that health care providers are prepared to provide quality care to diverse populations.

Author Information

Dr. Betancourt is director, The Disparities Solutions Center, senior scientist, Institute for Health Policy, and director of multicultural education, Massachusetts General Hospital, Boston, Massachusetts; and assistant professor of medicine, Harvard Medical School, Boston, Massachusetts.

Please see the end of this article for information about the author.

Correspondence should be addressed to Dr. Betancourt, 50 Staniford Street, Suite 942, Boston, MA 02114; telephone: (617) 724-9713; fax: (617) 724-4738; e-mail: (

© 2006 Association of American Medical Colleges