Sharnjit Grewal, MD, a hospitalist at Mercy Medical Group in Sacramento, Calif., is familiar with what he calls “the double-take.” A Sikh born and raised in California, Dr. Grewal wears a traditional turban and full beard. When he walks into the room, some patient’s simply don’t know what to make of him, he admits.
“It’s confusing—even to my Hindu and Sikh patients,” Dr. Grewal says. “They sometimes say, ‘You talk like an American, you’re obviously from the West, but you follow a faith from the East. The line between religion and culture is obscured.”
Although the medical community stresses cultural awareness and sensitivity, Dr. Grewal’s experience highlights the fine line between religion and culture, and the barriers standing stand in the way of cultural awareness.
Today, hospitals experience shifting patient demographics and a growing number of languages and dialects observed in the United States today. Between 1990-2000, the foreign-born population in the U.S. increased by 57%, compared with a 9.3% increase for the native population and a 13% increase for the total U.S. population, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.
Break Down Walls
When hospitalists and patients share a culture or language, the result can be extremely positive. In fact, the Joint Commission report states some hospitals in the United States are working to increase racial and ethnic similarities between staff and patient populations.
Joseph Li, MD, a hospitalist at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center in Boston, frequently works with Cantonese-speaking patients referred to the hospital by the healthcare clinic in Boston’s Chinatown section. When he greets patients in their native tongue, Dr. Li says he can feel their comfort level rise; even though he speaks what he calls “5-year-old Cantonese.”