Taking responsibility for your own health isn’t just about going to the doctor when you’re hurt or ill. It’s also about being proactive: going for check-ups, taking part in screening programs that can detect certain diseases in the early stages and learning how to prevent or better manage chronic conditions. These actions can help save lives and prevent more invasive medical procedures (1;2). But what if you don’t know about such programs, have no way to get to them, are confused about their purpose or don’t understand what you’re being told?
That’s the case for many people, including those in underserved communities who don’t access these vital health programs due to location, language and/or other barriers (3). Being sensitive to cultural values, beliefs and concerns is a starting point to help reduce unequal access to health information and programs. But what specific actions can we take?
A systematic review on cancer screening measured whether culturally adapted health education helps to improve cancer screening rates (4). Participants were included in peer-led information sessions about cancer screening and given culturally customized materials (pamphlets, brochures, videos, etc.), individualized reminders and guidance, and – in some cases – free materials or reimbursement of costs related to screening.
What the research tells us
Communication and training that reflects an individual’s language and culture improves people’s ability and motivation to respond to health promotion programs (4;5). Culturally adapted materials resulted in higher cancer screening participation rates (4).
We often feel more comfortable and receptive when we can relate to the person giving advice, and this review found that programs were particularly successful when delivered by “peer providers” with the same ethnic background or similar cultural values (4;5). Many of the included studies found that these targeted approaches also helped improve people’s knowledge, awareness and attitudes about screening, suggesting they are more likely to continue participating in the programs in the future.
And this is just one example. Culturally customized health education can have benefits beyond cancer screening. A second systematic review found that culturally adapted training for diabetes self-care improves symptoms and helps people cope better with the disease (6). While a third review found that culturally tailoring programs/treatment approaches/strategies may have the potential to enhance satisfaction with the care received and improve health outcomes in ethnic minorities with a chronic illness (7).
Translation of information and interpretation by peers helps to ensure health messages are meaningfully understood… but we know it takes more than this. Dr. Esha Ray Chaudhuri, a social scientist and member of McMaster Optimal Aging Portal's Citizen Advisory Council, points out that a message is only useful if people “actually relate to its value,” and are able to put the advice into practice. For example, translated materials can help people understand the importance of cancer screening or improving their diet. But if these recommendations differ from their personal or cultural values, or they are dependent on a family member or public transportation to take them to appointments or shopping, they may not be able to actually do these things.
Dr. Ray Chaudhuri also cautions that some approaches could back-fire “if based on a limited understanding of a different culture.” Making assumptions about the needs and uniformity of cultural communities could actually turn people off and impede the success of health programs, she says.
What can you do?
One way to ensure that healthy aging education, programs and services fit your needs is to get involved: advocate for activities and approaches that work for you! Dr. Ray Chaudhuri encourages all of us to recognize and share our individual needs and preferences as a “whole” person – including language and cultural/personal values – as a way to help more people access and follow through on recommendations to improve health. Speak up at appointments with your health providers and contact your local health centre to find out how you can get involved.
Cultural attitudes and values are central to how people view their own health and wellbeing. Incorporating these values into health communication and promotion strategies can help ensure that no one "falls through the cracks" when it comes to preventing or managing serious diseases.