Cultural and Linguistic Awareness for Nursing Professionals

“What we are talking about is how we use communication to make sure that that interaction between a provider, team, or institution and a patient is optimized so that the patient feels comfortable, valued, and respected so they can fully engage, share, and receive care.”

Rushika Patel, PhD, Chief Inclusion Officer, University of Michigan School of Nursing

Nurse practitioners and other nursing professionals operate in a diverse landscape of cultures and languages. Understanding a patient’s cultural background and language proficiency is essential to effective healthcare delivery. It fosters mutual respect and trust and enhances patient satisfaction and adherence to treatment plans. However, not all nurses are aware of the importance of cultural and linguistic awareness. 

Regional differences play a significant role in shaping individuals’ cultural norms, beliefs, and values. Awareness of these differences can help nurses better understand their patients’ perspectives and needs. “What we are talking about is how we use communication to make sure that that interaction between a provider, team, or institution and a patient is optimized so that the patient feels comfortable, valued, and respected so they can fully engage, share, and receive care,” says Rushika Patel, PhD, chief inclusion officer at the University of Michigan School of Nursing. 

Cultural and linguistic sensitivity isn’t limited to nurses when they provide care: “We have to be aware of this also within healthcare systems. How do we ensure employees feel that same sense of respect, regardless of the diversity and differences in their identities?” asks Dr. Patel. 

Providing care to patients that is sensitive to their cultural and linguistic backgrounds is not a new concept for nurse practitioners. Yet, its importance and relevance have heightened in today’s diverse society. Nurses have always been expected to offer patient-centered care, and understanding a patient’s cultural and linguistic background is integral to this approach.

“Nurses have been doing this for a long time, especially in community-based care centers and huge hospitals where there is more diversity,” says Dr. Patel. “Something I respect about nurses and the practice of nursing is that they understand that it’s more than what’s on paper. It’s more than what the blood test tells you or the MRI says. They know it is about the relationship. However, I think the recent emphasis on diversity, equity and inclusion, and health equity has helped bring these conversations into nursing curricula.”

Keep reading to learn more about why cultural and linguistic competency matters, how nurses can develop it, and what role institutions and schools have in fostering it.

Meet the Expert: Rushika Patel, PhD

Dr. Rushika Patel is the chief inclusion officer at the University of Michigan School of Nursing (UMSN). She has spent over 17 years in the education sector, both in the United States and abroad, where she has taught in various settings, such as Detroit Public Schools, Japan, and India, gaining diverse perspectives and experiences. 

Additionally, Patel has worked on numerous diversity-related initiatives and directed the Women’s Center and Intercultural Center at the University of Michigan-Flint. Her research and publication interests focus on critical race, class, gender, and citizenship studies in education. 

She holds a PhD in educational policy studies and organizational leadership from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, with a specialization in global studies in education; a master’s in education from the University of Massachusetts-Amherst with an emphasis in Education for social justice; and a bachelor’s in sociology, psychology, and English from the University of Michigan-Ann Arbor with an emphasis in race, class, and gender studies.

Why Cultural and Linguistic Competency Matters

Cultural and linguistic competency is essential for nurses to care for their patients effectively. It goes beyond simply knowing different cultures and languages; it involves understanding, respecting, and adapting to a patient’s cultural background and communication preferences: “Some people argue that care is very scientific. Nurses and healthcare providers make decisions around patient care based on data, irrespective of differences in identity, points of view, or perspectives. However, that’s flawed because human interaction is such an important part of the patient-provider interaction,” says Dr. Patel. “Culturally and linguistically relevant communication has the potential to help us to meet our goals around health equity.”

Culturally and linguistically sensitive care improves patient-provider relationships and leads to better health outcomes: “People won’t return to a provider, office, or point of contact within the healthcare system where they are uncomfortable or feel like they are just another number. And when patients have those kinds of negative interactions, it increases health inequities. When we look at the data, those patients are often people of color, working class, low income, women, elderly, or immigrants,” says Dr. Patel. 

When healthcare providers are culturally and linguistically competent, they can create a safe, welcoming environment that encourages patients to return for follow-up appointments, share detailed health information, and participate actively in their care. This leads to improved patient engagement, greater adherence to treatment plans, and, ultimately, better health outcomes. 

Providing this type of care benefits more than just the patient: “The world is so incredibly diverse. Even if you live in rural America in a racially homogenous community, there are socioeconomic classes. There are so many visible and invisible differences within a community that can be supported or punished. If we are not open to differences or judgmental about other perspectives, our own quality of life is not ideal or optimized either,” says Dr. Patel.  “When it comes to cultural and linguistic competency, I want every human being to know that it benefits them, regardless of their own identity. It’s not just something you’re doing for somebody else or because it’s fashionable. It’s not just about them. It’s about all of us.”

How to Develop Cultural and Linguistic Awareness

Developing cultural and linguistic awareness is an ongoing process that requires continuous education, self-reflection, and, in some cases, formal training: “You can attend a training course, which I think is wonderful and useful. They’re good for getting information and connecting with others in the community who have a similar commitment to being their best, most effective selves,” says Dr. Patel. “It’s about practice and integrating what you learned into how you care for patients. It’s also much more than your career because you can’t have this sensibility in one aspect of your life but none the other aspects of your life. Ultimately, it is a profound commitment to humility, thinking with an open heart, listening to people, and not stereotyping.” 

To develop the skills necessary to provide culturally and linguistically competent care, nurses need to be well cared for: “So many nurses have such heavy loads and so much labor and don’t always get as much respect as they deserve. Research shows that compassion fatigue can set in and impact one’s ability to be one’s best self when caring for patients. Systems and leaders need to create contexts in nursing labor that allow nurses to slow down and bring everything they can to their work,” says Dr. Patel.

The Role of Institutions and Schools In Linguistic and Cultural Awareness

In addition to individual efforts, institutions and schools have a crucial role in promoting cultural and linguistic awareness among nurses: “Nurses need to be paid well, have a sense of security in their jobs, have great benefits, and have working conditions that foster respect from colleagues and patients. They need to have things in place that make them feel safe. The hospitals need to be appropriately staffed with nurses to provide the quality of care that every patient deserves,” says Dr. Patel. 

“Something that executives and leaders can do is look at how their economic model facilitates optimal conditions for nurses to reduce the health inequities within the system. Nurses are uniquely positioned to provide culturally and linguistically appropriate care but must be taken care of.”

More traditional ways schools can play an integral role include embedding cultural competence modules into the core nursing curriculum and providing a robust foundation for understanding and appreciating cultural diversity. These modules can encompass case studies, simulations, and role-plays reflecting real-world scenarios, facilitating practical learning. Beyond theoretical knowledge, such educational programs can equip nurses with essential skills to navigate cultural nuances, build empathetic patient-provider relationships, and deliver effective care across various cultural backgrounds.

Kimmy Gustafson

Kimmy Gustafson


Thanks to her experience writing in healthcare, Kimmy Gustafson has delivered in-depth articles on timely topics for since 2022. Her aim is to assist both students and professionals in navigating the intricate process of selecting a nursing program and understanding the ever-evolving realm of nursing education.

Kimmy has been a freelance writer for more than a decade, writing hundreds of articles on a wide variety of topics such as startups, nonprofits, healthcare, kiteboarding, the outdoors, and higher education. She is passionate about seeing the world and has traveled to over 27 countries. She holds a bachelor’s degree in journalism from the University of Oregon. When not working, she can be found outdoors, parenting, kiteboarding, or cooking.