What is culturally relevant care?

The events of the past weeks, months, and years have caused us all to pause and think about how we become the best version of ourselves to better help our families, our communities, and families across the country who need louder voices and allies. We are thinking harder about how we can be more inclusive, how we can be kinder, and how we can ask smarter questions to be better informed. We are pushing ourselves out of our comfort zone to be of more service to groups that have been marginalized. We are taking action to be more aware of cultural relevancy and preferences.  But what does this all really boil down if we haven’t done the work to define “culturally relevant”?

As we built the concept of Zócalo Health, we started with identifying a gap that existed in our healthcare system for culturally relevant care for the growing population of Latinos living in the United States. I knew this gap existed because I experienced it growing up in rural New Mexico where my grandparents (Mexican immigrants) rarely had access to doctors that spoke their language or took the time to listen and learn their story. I remember medical appointments where my family members feared being judged for bringing up home remedies they tried before getting into an appointment.

“Oh, you put Vicks on that rash thinking it would go away?”

And then the rest of the appointment was conducted in words and phrases that were carefully selected to not hint at the different lifestyle you lived at home. Growing up, this experience was normal and expected in healthcare, finance, education, and careers. It wasn’t until I started studying and working in healthcare that I realized what was normal was not helping my community: it was hurting them. 

My grandmother, Nani

There are over 62 million Latinos living in the United States today comprising the largest minority group in the country. Yet despite this growth, our healthcare system has failed to address the needs of this diverse population. We see healthcare providers translating content from English to Spanish in an attempt to engage and educate their Latino patients, yet they stop short of really making their Latino patients feel heard and involved in their own healthcare. 

Healthcare is personal, and people find themselves needing healthcare in their most vulnerable state. It’s time we stop expecting our patients to adapt to a one-size-fits-all care model. It’s time we build something that is culturally relevant and aligned with their way of life – so what does that mean?

It means building an experience that is non-judgmental, where patients are heard, their stories valued, and they have an active role in their health. It’s where the value of building a relationship between patient and provider is valued, and patients can express themselves freely, knowing their provider understands them. It’s an experience where you have a need for acute care, such as a sore throat, and leave with helpful information about herbal teas you can make at home to soothe your throat, the same teas your grandmother would have recommended. It’s a visit where the provider greets you in your language and remembers that you are a mom of small children during a pandemic and that the last thing you need is to be rushed through the few minutes you have to focus on yourself. 

At Zócalo Health we are building an experience for our community to be seen, heard, and valued. We are taking it back to the basics on how to build a relationship with a care team that looks like you and comes from your community. We bring with us decades of experience using technology and innovation to improve healthcare yet we understand that a new app or chat bot won’t fix the experience if we don’t acknowledge the culture and traditions that matter to our communities. We want to prove that tradition and innovation can and should co-exist. 

We are still early days at Zócalo Health and have so much to learn from our patient and provider community around cultural relevance.  For me, a culturally relevant healthcare experience feels like a visit to my grandmother’s house. Her memory and care will never fade for me because it was the one place I always felt seen, heard, and valued. She took in everyone, at any time, and cared for them. She fed them, listened to them, hugged them and then sent them home with a dozen homemade flour tortillas. I remember when I would drive home from college to see my family 4 hours away, and I would always stop at my grandmother’s house on my way out of town to say goodbye. She would be waiting outside on her patio for me and would have 3 burritos made and ready for me to eat on the road, and I would say, “Nani, I don’t need these.” She would just put them in my hands anyways, and say, “Mi hija, te quiero mucho.” She would send me on my way with a blessing, a hug, and enough food to feed me for a week. (Of course I needed the burritos!)

I want every patient that visits Zócalo Health to feel the way my Nani made me feel. Loved, listened to, and respected. I want every patient to know that their story is shaping the way we deliver care. We are here to listen. We are here to change. And we are here to strengthen the health of Latino communities so we can continue to be the voices and allies that this world needs right now.