Cultural Competence in the Workplace

Sign in to continue reading this article

Not registered? Create an account for free to read full articles on

To access full articles on, please sign in below.

Busy? Sign in Faster. Sign into with your social media account.

Cultural competence, defined as “a set of congruent behaviors, attitudes, and policies that come together in a system [or] agency or among professionals and enable that system, agency, or those professionals to work effectively in cross-cultural situations.”1

Human healthcare now places much more emphasis on cultural competence. Physicians and other healthcare professionals are expected and trained to work with colleagues and help patients from all walks of life, including those of different gender, sexual orientation, age, race, ethnicity, and social class.

Can the same be said for veterinary professionals?

Although the veterinary profession has embraced a strong diversity movement, as evidenced by AVMA policy and educational initiatives,2 there is constant pressure to keep pace with a rapidly changing environment. The United States is one of the most culturally diverse nations in the world, with a kaleidoscopic group of inhabitants,3 but do veterinary team members, who are used to working with diverse patients, extend that diversity to clients?

From a veterinary practice perspective, this means team members must be able to overcome cultural or linguistic barriers to secure the best clinical outcomes for patients. 

Although attaining cultural competence seems like a simple goal, difficulties can arise simply because of human nature. For example, social psychology suggests people tend to categorize other people, experiences, and objects to give the world meaning.4 Studies also reveal people have a natural affinity for those who share the same values, beliefs, and backgrounds (ie, people who are “just like us”).5 In essence, people tend to have underlying thoughts and feelings known as “unconscious bias” that can inform their actions and trigger automatic decisions based on their implicit beliefs.6 

The following steps can help a practice build cultural competence.

[ad override]

Be Aware of Unconscious Bias

The aphorism Physician, know thyself is a reminder that potential for bias exists in veterinary as well as human medicine conversations because many of the cognitive processes (eg, making medical diagnoses, recognizing patterns) are similar. 

Consider the 10-year-old Cavalier King Charles spaniel with a hacking cough and exercise intolerance brought to the practice—most veterinary team members would have a working diagnosis before the patient even enters the examination room. This “pattern recognition” approach has its advantages but is not a perfect solution because it relies on assumptions. Similarly, problems arise when medical professionals make decisions based on their assumptions about diverse groups of people. Building cultural competence begins for both veterinary and human healthcare practitioners when they become aware that unconscious bias can exist. 

Explore Other Viewpoints

A key step in building cultural competence is to be curious (yet not intrusive) with regard to other people’s lives. When working with veterinary clients from different backgrounds, respectful communication without making judgement is vital.

In most cases, listening is more important than talking. For example, when using an interpreter for a veterinary consultation, observing the nonverbal communication is as important as listening to the words, because often the interpreter is not only translating a language but also acting as a “cultural broker” to build a bridge between the client’s and veterinary team member’s different cultural beliefs.7 To elicit a client’s viewpoint and perspective, use open-ended questions such as:

  • How do you explain Buddy’s illness?
  • What approach have you taken already with Diesel?
  • What thoughts do you have about why this started?
  • You mentioned you had concerns—can you tell me more?
  • What would you like to see happen with Suki’s care?

[ad override]

Be Flexible when Negotiating

Cultural competence requires flexibility and a willingness to understand the client and his or her individual beliefs, values, and needs on a deeper level. Such understanding allows the negotiation of a mutually acceptable plan that works for the clients and their pet(s). Sometimes these discussions will need extra people involved; for example, some clients may be uncomfortable making medical decisions and seek input from other family members or traditional healers.

In other cases, negotiating a plan that works for everyone will require lateral, flexible thinking and novel solutions. For example, consider offering more holistic treatment options at the practice or by referral, or providing clients educational resources written in several languages or easy-to-read, picture-based formats.


When the veterinary team operates without cultural competence, communication can break down and misunderstanding, frustration, and poor patient outcomes become a risk. However, cultural competence does not require an encyclopaedic knowledge of diversity, and veterinary professionals, because of the many different patients they treat every day, already have all the necessary traits—awareness, curiosity, experience with differences, and an openness to trying new things—in abundance.


References and author information Show
  1. Cross TL, Bazron BJ, Dennis KW, Isaacs MR. Towards a culturally competent system of care: a monograph on effective services for minority children who are severely emotionally disturbed. Washington, DC: Georgetown University Child Development Center; 1989.
  2. Diversity and inclusion in veterinary medicine. American Veterinary Medical Association. Published 2015. Accessed 2015.
  3. Perez A, Hirschman C. The changing racial and ethnic composition of the US population: emerging American identities. Popul Dev Rev. 2009;35(1):1-51.
  4. Vaughan G, Hogg M. Social psychology. Pearson Higher Education; 2013.
  5. Dasgupta N. Implicit ingroup favoritism, outgroup favoritism, and their behavioral manifestations. Social Justice Research. 2004;17(2):143-169.
  6. Unconscious bias. Shire Professional Chartered Psychologists. Published 2010. Accessed 2015.
  7. Avery MB. The role of the healthcare interpreter: an evolving dialogue. Washington, DC: The National Council on Interpreting in Health Care; 2001.

Jenny Moffett

BVetMed, MSc, DipMC, SFHEA, PGCE University of Surrey School of Veterinary Medicine, Guildford, Surrey, United Kingdom

Jenny Moffett, BVetMed, MSc, DipMC, SFHEA, is a veterinary educationalist and the program director of the veterinary undergraduate course at University of Surrey School of Veterinary Medicine. She graduated from Royal Veterinary College, London, United Kingdom, in 2000. After working in companion animal and mixed-animal practice in the UK and Australia, Jenny earned her MSc in science communication at Dublin City University. She has a special interest in communication and education and has worked at the Irish Veterinary Journal and Ross University School of Veterinary Medicine, St. Kitts.

FUN FACT: Jenny has a secret obsession for upcycling furniture and is currently living her sanding and spray-painting dreams in a new house.

Material from Veterinary Team Brief may not be reproduced, distributed, or used in whole or in part without prior permission of Educational Concepts, LLC. For questions or inquiries please contact us.

Veterinary Team Brief delivers practical skills for team-based medicine—with clinical strategies for team training, peer-reviewed credibility, concise content, essential training modules, and easy-to-implement protocols. From the publisher of Clinician's Brief.