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Why Intercultural Competence in Nursing Matters

Written by: North Carolina Central University   •  Sep 27, 2023
Nurse smiles with a patient in a health care facility.

Why Intercultural Competence in Nursing Matters

Take any health care setting where you might find a nurse: hospitals, clinics, hospice facilities, or mental health and rehabilitation centers. These are places where people are at their most vulnerable, needing empathetic and compassionate care.

However, care isn’t one-size-fits-all. Patients possess a wide variety of intersectional identities, backgrounds, lived experiences, and cultural sensitivities. Without acknowledging the differences that make each patient an individual with a diverse and specific set of needs, the health care system is in danger of falling short of achieving equitable patient outcomes.

Luckily, intercultural competence in nursing can be taught and fostered to help combat health inequities and provide a patient experience that works for everyone, regardless of experience, identity, or circumstances.

What Is Intercultural Competence in Nursing?

Intercultural competence in nursing is a nurse’s ability to provide effective and sensitive health care services to patients with diverse cultural backgrounds. Developing intercultural awareness involves acquiring the knowledge, skills, attitudes, and behaviors to communicate with patients and their families who may have different cultural beliefs, values, customs, and languages.

In a country as diverse as the United States, possessing a full understanding and appreciation of every culture is impossible. However, nurses and their employers can take measurable steps to create more inclusive care settings. Below are some key components of intercultural competence in nursing.


Nurses must first be aware of their own cultural biases, values, and beliefs to avoid making assumptions or judgments about patients from different cultural backgrounds. Self-awareness is essential in recognizing how their own culture may influence their interactions with patients.

Cultural Knowledge

Nurses should acquire knowledge about different cultures, including their beliefs, health care practices, communication styles, dietary preferences, and health-related taboos — especially for populations that are prominent in their area. This knowledge helps nurses understand and respect the cultural context of their patients.

Cultural Assessment

To gain cultural knowledge specific to their patients, nurses should conduct respectful and appropriate cultural assessments to gather information about a patient’s background, beliefs, and preferences. This information helps tailor care plans and interventions to align with patients’ cultural values and needs.

Cultural Sensitivity

Being sensitive to cultural differences means that nurses should approach patients with empathy and respect, acknowledging that their perspectives and experiences may differ from their own. Sensitivity includes being nonjudgmental, avoiding stereotypes, and understanding the importance of certain cultural practices.

Cultural Competency Training

Health care organizations often provide cultural competency training to nurses, so they can enhance their intercultural awareness. These programs can include workshops, seminars, and resources to help nurses develop this skill.

Effective Communication

Effective communication is critical in nursing care. Nurses need to adapt their communication style to meet the needs of patients from diverse backgrounds. This may involve using interpreters, being aware of nonverbal cues, and asking open-ended questions to understand patients’ concerns. Bilingual or multilingual nurses can also help facilitate effective communication with patients who may have language barriers.

Flexibility and Adaptability

Nurses should be flexible and adaptable in their approach to care, recognizing that individual patients within a cultural group may have unique beliefs and practices. Being open to learning and adjusting their care plans accordingly is essential.


Collaboration with health care team members, including interpreters, cultural liaisons, and social workers, can help ensure culturally sensitive care. Nurses should work together with colleagues to provide holistic care to patients.

Ethical Considerations

Ethical considerations are an integral part of intercultural competence. Nurses should be mindful of ethical principles, such as autonomy and informed consent, while respecting cultural values that may influence health care decisions.

Patient-Centered Care

Ultimately, the goal of intercultural competence in nursing is to provide patient-centered care that respects the individuality and cultural diversity of each patient. This approach aims to improve patient outcomes and satisfaction.

The Importance of Cultural Awareness in Nursing

Intercultural competence in nursing is essential because it ensures that care is sensitive and appropriate for a diverse patient population. It also facilitates effective communication and fosters mutual respect between health care providers and their patients. Conversely, a lack of cultural awareness in nursing has direct and measurable consequences.

For example, language barriers can significantly hinder patient access to care and the outcomes of that care. An article from the Oman Medical Journal compiled data from multiple studies that demonstrated the implications of language barriers in health care. The findings demonstrated the following regarding people who didn’t speak the local language in a given region:

  • A total of 49% had trouble understanding a medical situation.
  • A total of 34.7% were confused about how to use medication.
  • A total of 41.8% had trouble understanding a label on medication.
  • A total of 15.8% had a bad reaction to medication due to a problem understanding their health care provider’s instructions.
  • A total of 66.7% faced a barrier when accessing health care.
  • A total of 20% didn’t seek health care services if they weren’t readily available for fear of not understanding their health care provider.

While these outcomes are disappointing, the article argued that these issues could be mitigated through increasing translation services. Even free translation tools, such as Google Translate and MediBabble, can increase the satisfaction of both medical professionals and patients by up to 92%. These results also speak to the importance of having a multilingual health care team. Nurses who speak multiple languages can have a particularly positive impact on patient outcomes since they can build rapport with their patients and often act as their advocates.

Translation services and multilingual nurses represent productive ways to implement intercultural competence in nursing and improve patient experience and outcomes. Going the extra mile to provide thoughtful, patient-focused care helps people — and practitioners — feel more confident in intercultural interactions.

Intercultural Competence in Nursing Education

Providing nurses with a strong foundation in intercultural awareness and how to implement it starts with nursing education. To effectively meet the needs of all patients, nurses must understand and respect their complex identities and backgrounds to enhance communication, build trust, and deliver patient-centered care. This can ultimately improve health care outcomes and patient satisfaction.

At North Carolina Central University Online, intercultural competence is a pillar of our Registered Nurse to Bachelor of Science in Nursing (RN to BSN) program. Our institution has a reputation for providing culturally competent leaders who value diverse perspectives, including their own. Sound like you? Explore the program now.


Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Cultural Competence in Health and Human Services

Frontiers in Psychology, “Methods of Increasing Cultural Competence in Nursing Working in Clinical Practice: A Scoping Review of Literature 2011-2021”

Health Literacy Research and Practice, “Health Literacy and Intercultural Competence Training”

HHS Public Access, “Language Barriers Between Nurses and Patients: A Scoping Review”

Oman Medical Journal, “Implications of Language Barriers for Healthcare: A Systematic Overview”

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