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What does a doctor gain from giving back? Cultural understanding


As you’ve likely experienced in your day to day work, the diverse population in the United States and elsewhere in the world demands a high level of cultural competency and has a huge impact on the way you evaluate, treat, and devise healthcare plans for your patients.

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Cultural understanding can take a lot of work to develop, but with it you can gain trust, provide better care, improve patient adherence to care plans, work toward reducing some of the racial and ethnic disparities that are so prevalent in the healthcare world, and improve clinical outcomes.2 3

If you’re looking to expand your cultural awareness beyond the walls of the hospital or medical practice where you work, volunteer opportunities are worth exploring. This sort of community work can help you see a broader picture of how cultural diversity ties into healthcare, become an even better doctor, and find a deeper connection to the work you do.

Rocco Lombardi, a family physician in Ontario, has first-hand experience in the importance of cultural awareness when volunteering overseas in a medical capacity. During his time assisting with medical relief efforts in Haiti, he quickly learned the importance of open-mindedness and being familiar with the local culture, and he has advice for others interested in this type of volunteer work.4



If you’re looking to expand your cultural awareness beyond the walls of the hospital or medical practice where you work, volunteer opportunities are worth exploring.

“You are going to be working in a difficult environment with other people as well as interacting with patients of a different culture,” he said in a piece in Doctor’s Review. “You need patience, understanding and you need to be a team player.”4

Deepening your cultural understanding can even make your career more rewarding. While serving a medical mission in Brazil, Eduardo Salazar, a former medical student at University of Arizona College of Medicine, quickly learned that his success and fulfillment as a physician are closely tied to his ability to integrate into local communities. 5

“I always felt that I wasn’t being effective unless local residents trusted and respected me,” he said to the Gold Foundation. “The more effort I put into making those things happen, the happier I was.”5

Former University of University of Nebraska Medical Center student Grant Turner, who is now a pulmonary and critical care medicine fellow, deepened his cultural awareness and overall understanding of medicine by volunteering at a local free clinic in Nebraska during his schooling.6

“As a volunteer, I’ve learned how to walk in the shoes of my patients and really understand the cultural and lifestyle factors that may contribute to health disparities for many people,” he said in an interview with the American Medical Association.7

But remember that cultural awareness isn’t developed in a day. It’s more of a career-long journey of understanding. Sidney Weissman, clinical professor of psychiatry at Northwestern University’s Feinberg School of Medicine, stressed that cultural awareness must continuously be cultivated throughout a physician’s career. “Attaining and sustaining this awareness is a lifelong endeavor,” she said. “Self-awareness, not classroom time, is the foundation for cultural awareness.”7

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Even though cultural awareness can be tricky and time consuming to cultivate, it’s crucial for advancing and exceling in your career, connecting with patients at a deeper level, and even lets you gain more satisfaction in the work that you do.


[1] Seibert, P. S. (2002). A checklist to facilitate cultural awareness and sensitivity. Journal of Medical Ethics,28(3), 143-146. doi:10.1136/jme.28.3.143
[2] Juckett, G. (2005, December 01). Cross-Cultural Medicine. Retrieved from
[3] Orenstein, D. (n.d.). Physicians should gain cultural competency. Retrieved from
[4] Solomon, S. (2018, November 12). Doctor’s Review: Medicine on the Move. Retrieved from
[5] Meet our Medical Student Bloggers. (2015, January 06). Retrieved from
[6] How volunteering has made doctors, students happier and healthier. (2016, November 08). Retrieved from
[7] Weissman, S. (2017). When and How Do We Teach Cultural Awareness? Academic Medicine,92(12), 1653. doi:10.1097/acm.0000000000001985
Body Photo Credit #2: Adam Jan Figel /
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