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Have you ever received medical care abroad and encountered communication challenges or even misunderstandings? Or have you ever faced challenges when trying to provide medical care to someone who couldn’t understand you? In cross-cultural communication in healthcare, it is highly important to be aware of the individual understandings of disease, life, death, and ethics of care to establish common ground and work purposefully.

Two researchers, Raya Nunez Mahdi, a cultural anthropologist, and Carlos Nunez, who has a background in engineering, presented some striking perspectives on intercultural communication and competence in healthcare at this year’s SIETAR Europe congress. Together with Charlie Obihara, Dorian Maarse, and Edwin Hagenbeek they created a textbook addressing the challenges today’s healthcare professionals are facing due to a growing number of patients coming from diverse cultural backgrounds, religions and customs.[1]

During the workshop it became clear how essential intercultural training is for clinic staff as well as for healthcare workers. Embracing diversity in inclusive healthcare further meets three of the 17 sustainable development goals, such as 3) Good Health and Well-Being, 4) Quality Education, and 10) Reduced Inequality. According to the speakers, many medical professionals overestimate their cross-cultural awareness, rarely check their patients’ language skills and often don’t explore the reason for the consultations.

To develop a deeper intercultural sensitivity, we must reflect our biases and be open for new perspectives. What do we take for granted in terms of medical communication? What are our cultural values and frames we act in?

For some time now, there has been a major shortage of skilled workers in the healthcare sector, which has led to the recruitment of healthcare personnel from diverse cultural backgrounds. These specialists must be integrated into the local healthcare system with a considerable amount of intercultural sensitivity. On top of that, the patients who receive medical care in many European countries also have diverse cultural backgrounds.

The topic of intercultural communication must therefore be addressed in depth both in the integration of foreign specialists and in the communication with patients.

Some food for thought:

  • What are the culturally and religiously influenced views on illness and death?
  • What language barriers and expectations exist (both from the patient and the staff side)?

We look forward to your contact!


Raya Nunez Mahdi, Charlie Obihara, Dorian Maarse, Carlos Nunez, Edwin Hagenbeek. 2020. Intercultural Competence in Healthcare. Embracing Diversity in Patient-Centered Care, Assen: Uitgeverij Koninklijke Van Gorcum.

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