5 Things Health Communicators Need to Know About Cultural Humility – A Q&A with Members of JPA Health

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Health equity has become a growing priority over the past 18 months in light of the COVID-19 pandemic. As more people seek to consider health equity in all aspects of their work, it will be increasingly important to understand the principles and components of what it really means to deliver equitable care. One aspect of health equity that is particularly critical for health communication efforts is cultural humility. Defined as an ongoing commitment to learning about other cultures, cultural humility is key to developing appropriate communication campaigns that incorporate the values of the target audiences.  

Two of JPA’s team members, Akeia Blue and Joel Lopez, talk about the role of cultural humility in their lives and in their work as health communicators.  

What is cultural humility to you, and why is it important?  

Akeia – Cultural humility is how we work to learn about cultures and people outside of ourselves to come to an empathetic understanding of their experiences and, in the context of health communications, how those experiences have affected their health and their ability to receive and act on health information. It is important to incorporate cultural humility in our work as health communicators to ensure that the campaigns that we are developing are in the best interest of, and are useful to, the audiences we are trying to reach.  

Joel – Cultural humility goes further than competency or acceptance. It is the act of humbling myself and putting aside any potential assumptions or biases I may have about how much I know about an individual, culture, or community. Cultural humility also means acknowledging that individuals, families, and communities are experts of their own lived experiences. They can share information about their traditions, culture, and history to help me better understand the nuances and their unique perspectives. 

As a communicator, cultural humility is important because it reminds me that I don’t know everything about the audiences I am trying to reach. Public health impacts individuals that span the full spectrum of demographics – including people from various geographical locations and different religions, as well as a wide range of racial and ethnic backgrounds. Cultural humility requires me to seek out my preconceived notions, humble myself by listening to and learning from the people I am trying to communicate with, and create a mutually respectful relationship. Then I apply the lessons learned to my communications practice.  

How can public health stakeholders build strong relationships with communities experiencing inequities? 

Akeia – When I think about cultural humility, I immediately think back to one of my professors who was fortunate enough to have deeply studied the Amish community. They allowed him to come in and live within their community so that he could learn about them, which is not common. He taught us that in order to build those types of relationships with communities outside of your own, you have to be authentic and humble. Public health stakeholders have to approach communities with open minds and listen to the leaders and members of the community, while allowing them to contribute to the project every step of the way. 

Joel – I’m often reminded of the popular health slogan “Nothing About Us, Without Us” when working in public health communications. Public health stakeholders must take the time to listen to and involve members of the public – especially those experiencing inequities – in their approach to solving health problems and promoting positive, healthy behaviors in society. When working with communities outside of my own, I approach relationship building with curiosity by asking questions that aim to help me understand my audience. I evaluate the impact of my work on the communities I’m trying to reach and adjust my approach based on the evidence. I also prioritize establishing and building trust with the community. Historically a lack of trust between patients and healthcare providers has led to negative public health impacts. Approaching health communications with a lens of cultural humility can help to work towards rebuilding the trust that was lost. 

As a person of color, why do you feel it is important that cultural humility is applied to public health and communications?  

Akeia – At a very young age, I remember learning about the Tuskegee Syphilis Study and how that affected the way I viewed the public health and healthcare systems. Additionally, I often heard my Nana express her distrust of the healthcare system and experienced firsthand the frustration of having healthcare providers offer inadequate communication to myself and my loved ones. As a health communicator now, I often look back and think about how different our experiences with the healthcare system could have been had we been asked questions for understanding. Taking the time to understand a person’s reasoning or fears can allow healthcare professionals to provide empathetic care without undermining the person’s concerns.  

Joel – Growing up in a Mexican household, I saw firsthand the implications of systemic distrust, poor health literacy and a lack of understanding of why health and healthy behaviors are important. My extended family – which consisted of dozens of aunts, uncles, cousins, and grandparents – would often consult one another on complex, important health conditions – and often this family advice received would supersede that of health professionals. Now working as a health communications professional, I understand the importance of having the balance of a support system in addition to having access to information based on the evidence, and healthcare professionals who can help you understand what it means for you and your specific needs.  

Looking ahead, what can health communicators do to develop campaigns that can contribute to discussion on health topics respectfully and inclusively?  

Akeia – Our role in developing campaigns should begin with understanding the concerns of the audience we are trying to reach. It is our job to be clear about how that population defines the problem or need so that we can address that rather than creating our own to address. We listen to people from the community who are trusted and then work with them to disseminate the messages in ways that are easily received. Truly practicing cultural humility requires you to take the ego out of your work and openly admit that you may not be the expert so that you can rely on those who are.  

Joel – As communicators, we can think about how our messages and campaigns contribute towards equitable health outcomes for all people. We can consult and collaborate with the communities we are trying to reach and ensure the inclusion of representatives or advocates from those communities in the process of crafting communications strategies and messages. We can approach our work with humility and the flexibility to take a different approach based on the needs and characteristics of the communities we serve. Most of all, we can embrace diversity by tailoring our messages for the different communities we are trying to reach, rather than taking a “one size fits all” approach to health communication. 

What’s one aspect of working at JPA that you appreciate most when it comes to cultural competency? 

Akeia – I love that at JPA we take the time to research and incorporate various types of research to help us deliver culturally appropriate campaigns. We are all willing to take a step back and recognize that we don’t always have the answers and reach out to the experts who can help us get them. We are a passionate group of people who strive hard to deliver beautiful, diverse and well thought out campaigns to improve the health of people.  

Joel – At JPA, I appreciate the variety of cultures, ethnicities, races, and religions that are represented throughout our organization’s staff. We embrace the diverse, intersectional nature of individuals and encourage members of the team to always consider the “why” behind our work. Our clients represent a broad spectrum of health areas that impact individuals and families across the globe. As communicators, we get to play a role in helping our clients convey accurate, compelling and meaningful information that ultimately aims to improve the lives of those we reach. 

Check out our Public Health Practice to learn more about our work in health equity.