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Practicing cultural humility encourages patients to use digital health

Picture of a women smiling with the words "Practicing cultural humanity encourages patients to use digital health" Getting patients to understand and use digital health technology may be a matter of life and death until the coronavirus is under control (Photo by: Savannah Blackstock)

Now that we finally made it to 2021, getting patients to understand and use digital health technology may be a matter of life and death until the coronavirus is under control. A proven way care teams can encourage patients to embrace these technologies—and improve health outcomes in 2021 and beyond—is to practice cultural humility.

Cultural humility involves non-judgmentally looking at culture as a set of beliefs and practices a particular group holds about age, gender, and other demographic factors and the issues related to those factors. These beliefs and practices inform the identity and behavior of each individual in that group.

Cultural humility gets to the heart of how providers and care teams perceive patients and interact with them. It enables us to constructively communicate with each patient to see them as a whole person with many aspects to their personality, including how they relate to technology. We can gain insights to understand where they are coming from, so we can meet them where they are with the best care tailored to their needs.

Research indicates a culturally humble approach enables providers and patients to understand each other better and trust each other more. These stronger relationships can empower and encourage patients to adopt evidence-based practices shown to improve health outcomes, including digital health technology.

Tips and Tools

To apply a culturally humble attitude when interacting with patients, remember the 5 A's:

  1. Assess each patient's level of technology literacy and interest in using technology. Don't assume that where a patient falls within certain demographic factors - age, gender, ethnicity, etc.—automatically determines that patient's stance toward using digital health technology.

  2. Avoid assuming the patient understands and uses technology in the same way you do. Inquire about the brands and functions of the devices your patients use or you may put up boundaries without knowing it.
  3. Acknowledge how the patient's unique experience - and your own - may impact your individual perspectives on incorporating digital health technology into care.

  4. Ask the patient to summarize your recommendations in their own words. This step helps ensure you and the patient have the same understanding.

  5. Ask the patient how feasible it is to incorporate the technology. Ensure what you recommend reflects the capabilities of the patient's device, the patient's access to the internet, and family dynamics such as whether the patient shares the device with other family members.

In short, our experiences as members of care teams are not the same as our patients'; experiences. We don't know all the stressors patients have been through due to the pandemic, so it's especially worth discussing those factors as part of care and whether they play into technology use.

Many digital health resources from trustworthy sources are available to help care teams incorporate cultural humility into practice. This video from the Defense Health Agency Connected Health Branch, for instance, provides a succinct introduction and helpful advice to get started. The Department of Veterans Affairs' ACT Coach and Mindfulness mobile apps are two of many health apps that enable care teams and patients to interact in culturally humble ways.

Thinking Back, Looking Ahead

In retrospect, I have thought of many instances where I could have improved my patient care using a culturally humble approach. I would have better served each patient by first considering my own biases and relationship with technology. I could have used that insight to treat each patient as a whole person with many different aspects that influenced whether digital health technology was right for them.

Now more than ever, we don't want to unintentionally alienate patients from the very tools that can help them get and stay healthy. The growing popularity of digital health technology with care teams and patients alike means these tools will become an even more integral part of care delivery from here on.

Through cultural humility, Military Health System providers and care teams can proactively foster stronger relationships with patients, encourage them to use digital health technology, and improve health care outcomes now and going forward.

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