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Losing Culture on the Way to Competence: The Use and Misuse of Culture in Medical Education

Gregg, Jessica MD, PhD; Saha, Somnath MD, MPH

doi: 10.1097/01.ACM.0000225218.15207.30
Cultural Competence

Most cultural competence programs are based on traditional models of cross-cultural education that were motivated primarily by the desire to alleviate barriers to effective health care for immigrants, refugees, and others on the sociocultural margin. The main driver of renewed interest in cultural competence in the health professions has been the call to eliminate racial and ethnic disparities in the quality of health care. This mismatch between the motivation behind the design of cross-cultural education programs and the motivation behind their current application creates significant problems. First, in trying to define cultural boundaries or norms, programs may inadvertently reinforce racial and ethnic biases and stereotypes while doing little to clarify the actual complex sociocultural contexts in which patients live. Second, in attempting to address racial and ethnic disparities through cultural competence training, educators too often conflate these distinct concepts. To make this argument, the authors first discuss the relevance of culture to health and health care generally, and to disparities in particular. They then examine the concept of culture, paying particular attention to how it has been used (and misused) in cultural competence training. Finally, they discuss the implications of these ideas for health professions education.

Dr. Gregg is assistant professor of medicine, Division of General Internal Medicine, Oregon Health and Science University, Portland, Oregon.

Dr. Saha is staff physician, Portland VA Medical Center, and associate professor of medicine, Oregon Health and Science University, Portland, Oregon.

Correspondence should be addressed to Dr. Gregg, Oregon Health and Science University, Division of General Internal Medicine, 3181 SW Sam Jackson Park Rd., L-475, Portland, OR 97201; telephone: (503) 494-3317; fax: (503) 494-0979; e-mail: (

© 2006 Association of American Medical Colleges