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Cindy Brach

In Conversation With... Cindy Brach

December 27, 2019 

Editor’s note: Cindy Brach, MPP is a Senior Healthcare Researcher at the Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality and is the Co-Chair of the HHS Health Literacy Workgroup. We spoke with her about the role of cultural competence in patient safety.

Ms. Brach has no conflict of interest to disclose.


Dr. Kendall Hall: Could you please provide an overview of your background, your current role at AHRQ, and how you became interested in the topic of cultural and linguistic competence?

Cindy Brach: I began working at AHRQ 23 years ago. Prior to that, I was the Associate Director of an organization called the Mental Health Policy Resource Center. Mental health was actually a trailblazer for defining cultural competence and I wrote a bit on the subject while in this role. The definition of cultural competence that is frequently cited in the field actually comes from work in children’s mental health. When I came to AHRQ, my boss had done some work on identifying non-financial barriers to care, one of which was the lack of cultural competence. We worked together on developing a conceptual model of how cultural competence might reduce disparities and created a business case for cultural competence. I have since served on the National Project Advisory Committee for both the original and 2013 revision of the National Standards for Culturally and Linguistically Appropriate Services (CLAS) in Health and Health Care. After which, I partnered with the Office of Minority Health to develop and publish a research agenda on cultural and linguistic competence.

KH: How does cultural competence relate to your current work on improving healthcare delivery?

CB: I’m the Co-Chair of the HHS Health Literacy Workgroup. From my perspective there is an inherent link between cultural competence, language barriers, and health literacy. I see them as each an overlapping circle in a Venn diagram. There are parts of the Venn diagram that do not overlap with the others, but there’s a core population of patients that has all three of these factors. The most obvious overlap is between linguistic competence and health literacy. If somebody is speaking a different language from you, you’re not going to understand. Health literacy is all about making information easy to understand, so when there are language barriers, you’re not promoting health literacy.

KH: How does patient safety fit into the Venn-diagram? Is it impacted by one discrete element or by all three?

CB: All three elements of the Venn diagram affect patient safety. They are actually cross cutting issues that affect all six of the quality domains identified in the IOM report, Crossing the Quality Chasm, including patient safety. Health literacy was actually one of two cross-cutting national priority issues identified in the IOM report, “Priority Areas for National Action: Transforming Health Care Quality.”  Poor health literacy can have a big impact on patient safety. For example, when patients and clinicians have difficulty communicating, it can impact the clinician’s ability to make a diagnosis and/or the patient’s ability to understand that diagnosis. Similarly, language barriers have been associated with patient safety events. There is an article by Divi and colleagues that found that hospital patients with limited English proficiency experienced more harms and more severe harms than patients with proficient English.

I think another thing to consider is how these factors affect patient and family engagement. AHRQ has embraced patient and family engagement as an important component to achieve patient safety, and you cannot have engagement without addressing health literacy and cultural and linguistic competency.

KH: When you think about cultural, linguistic, and health literacy competencies and disparities as a patient safety issue, what is the link?

CB: According to the conceptual model mentioned previously, cultural competence can reduce disparities. However, I don’t want to oversell its ability to reduce disparities as there are many things that factor into disparities. There are some instances where you can see causal pathways and how you can disrupt that disparity process by implementing cultural linguistically competent interventions. However, even if there is not a disparity between English proficient and limited English proficient patients on any patient safety measure, it is still mandatory to provide equal access to communication for those patients. For example, you should still have bi-lingual clinicians, interpreter services, and things that will enable you to communicate to that population. This is based on an equal rights argument that says patients have the right to be able to communicate in healthcare and to be treated respectfully, regardless of any documented disparities.

KH: Do you think you have to understand a culture specifically to deliver culturally competent care?

CB: When it comes to cultural competence there is knowledge and there are skills. Cultural competence is very often defined as being able to work effectively across diverse populations. However, that tells you nothing about what you need to do to meet that goal. To me, being culturally competent is about having the skills needed to work cross-culturally. That means that regardless of my knowledge of a particular person’s culture, I have skills that enable me to put them at ease, to ask them about their health beliefs, to access resources, whether it be interpreter services or cultural brokers, that can support me in that relationship with the patient. However, what looks like good cultural competence varies among organizations. When you have a more homogenous population that you’re serving, you might hire on a staff interpreter, you might hire bi-lingual, bi-cultural clinicians and receptionists and billing clerks. That will put you in good stead to serve your target population, but that’s not going to be a great strategy if you’re serving a more diverse population. Then you need to be thinking about language banks, language lines, and where do you need community health workers or outreach groups that are responsible for different patient populations. It’s going to look different by necessity but can all result in cultural and linguistic competence.

KH: It sounds like one approach is to bring in people that are members of the community they’re serving.

CB: Yes, as I mentioned the definition of cultural competence doesn’t tell you what you need to do. When we were creating the conceptual model in 2000, we conducted a literature review and made a list of cultural competence strategies. This included approaches such as providing interpreter services, recruitment and retention of staff, training, coordinating with traditional healers, using community health workers, and culturally competent health promotion. Culturally competent health promotion is when you use culturally specific information about the community to tailor health promotion services and messages. For example, after discovering that a group of Cantonese-speakers worked several jobs and shopped on their sole day off, a health plan held health promotion classes in Cantonese in the area of the market on their specific day off.

KH: You mentioned something called a cultural broker. What is the purpose of that broker?

CB: A cultural broker is someone who understands two different cultures and mediates in cross-cultural interactions to help both parties understand each other. The broker role is usually combined with another staff function. For example, the role is often played by interpreters and community health workers in patient encounters. Cultural brokers can operate on an organizational level, such as when health organizations have a relationship with community-based organizations that give them cultural insights. Diverse members of patient and family advisory councils (PFACs) can also serve as cultural brokers. There are other ways for healthcare organizations to become more culturally sensitive. For example, California Medicaid plans were required to conduct a community needs assessment. Sometimes there are very influential people in the community who are gatekeepers to that community, for example a religious leader or an indigenous healer, who can play the broker role.

KH: You had mentioned the PFACs, is there an opportunity to make the PFAC more diverse and aligned with the communities they serve?

CB: Some places have, for example, a Spanish language PFAC. In a few places PFACs are required to be representative of the people who live in the healthcare organization’s service area. However, PFACs struggle to be economically and demographically diverse. I think that people are recognizing—to varying degrees– that having a diverse PFAC is important. Some organizations pay their PFAC members, in addition to providing child care and compensation for transportation.

KH: Could you please describe some of the projects you are currently involved in at AHRQ that help to address cultural competence?

CB: I will start with the TeamSTEPPS Limited English Proficiency module. This is a module that can be implemented as a stand-alone program or in combination with the complete TeamSTEPPS curriculum. It teaches how to include interpreters as part of the care team. Frequently the interpreter is not well integrated and only brought in on an as-needed basis with very minimal context about the care of the patient. What this module teaches is that the interpreter needs to be part of the team and that giving them patient safety responsibilities creates psychological safety for both the patient and the interpreter to speak up if they see a patient safety issue.

KH: Does the module go beyond health literacy and language barriers to include cultural considerations?  

CB: The TeamSTEPPS module does not address cultural considerations. That is a much more cultural broker role and we do not discuss using interpreters, or others, as cultural brokers in the module. However the Re-Engineered Discharge (RED) Toolkit includes cultural considerations. The RED Toolkit, based on a modified discharge process tested in a randomized control trial, addresses how you should discharge diverse patients from different cultural and language backgrounds. The approach that the toolkit took was to create a separate tool called “How to deliver the re-engineered discharge to diverse populations” that focuses on nuances of delivering the RED to diverse patients. It specifically addresses some aspects of cultural and linguistic competence. Specific actions include hiring the right staff or bi-lingual, bicultural individuals and providing cultural linguistic competence training, translation and interpreter services, assessing communication needs, and taking into account different cultural considerations.

One aspect of the RED is making appointments for follow-up care before the patient is discharged. This may include a community health center or other primary care or specialty care services. It does not assume that these patients are low-income patients and instead approaches disparities from a cultural and linguistic perspective.

KH: You were previously interviewed [in 2013] for the AHRQ Innovation Exchange. Since that time, what has changed with regards to how we approach cultural and linguistic competence?

CB: Since then, the new National Standards for Culturally and Linguistically Appropriate Services (CLAS) have been released. The “Blueprint,” as it’s called, provides links to resources to support implementation. It also explicitly addresses health literacy; there is specific language throughout the Standards about how care has to be understandable to patients and families. With the CLAS Standards, the Office of Minority Health set out to answer the question: What do I do if I want to be a culturally competent organization? What does that mean? The Standards operationalize the definition.

KH: Are there resources hospitals can access to see how you design, implement, and evaluate policies, practices, and services to ensure cultural and linguistic appropriateness?

CB: There has been some work to develop assessment tools, but they haven’t really caught on for in-patient and out-patient settings. For example, there’s the Cultural Competency Implementation Measure that was developed by RAND and endorsed by the National Quality Forum. There’s also the cross-cultural communication component of the Communication Climate Assessment Toolkit (C-CAT). The language assistance piece is by far the most developed and has made the most head way in health care consciousness and implementation. For example, two measures of communication with people with limited English proficiency in AHRQ’s Consensus Organizational Health Literacy Quality Improvement Measures.

KH: Why do you think health literacy is more integrated into patient safety than cultural competence?  

CB: I think that has to do with health literacy more generally. I think that health literacy has appealed more because it’s your grandmother, it’s you. Everyone can come up with a personal example of when they’ve been frustrated after being given an incomprehensible set of instructions, or after being sent to 20 different providers. Unfortunately, I do not think that cultural competency has made the same inroads, because it’s seen as benefiting only a segment of patients – minority patients. Patient safety is a big numbers game. If you’re looking at rates of infection in a hospital over a period of time, moving the needle on those rates for a group that only represents a small portion of your population – it is not going to be that much help to you when trying to meet your overall patient safety goal. So there is less investment in trying to fix that problem.

KH: What are the next steps in this field? Where are we going and where should we be going?

CB: I think there has been a fair bit of stagnation in recent years in the cultural and linguistic competence area. I think that in order to make headway now, people have to walk the walk. For example, in the case of accreditation auditors. When they have standards that relate to equity, communication, or any other areas in which disparities occur, they have to really enforce them or people are not going to pay attention. There are organizations that are trying to improve the cultural competence because they know it is the right thing to do and will ultimately improve their outcomes and serve their patients better. However, to really move the needle there has to be some alignment of incentives. For example, payments could be linked to reducing disparities, which could encourage investment in cultural and linguistic competence. Using quality measures is another approach. For example, there is a hospital that I know of that decided they were going to measure whether there were at least 2 interpreter encounters in a 24 hour time period. Now, is that the right number? Is that going to be the right time period? Who knows! But it sends a message throughout the organization that there is an expectation that you will use the interpreters and that there is accountability. Some states have mandated cultural competence training as part of medical licensing requirements. But I don’t think we have evidence as to whether that’s produced a more culturally competent workforce, or just given rise to a training industry that may or may not be providing effective training.

KH: Is there anything that we didn’t cover today that you would like to discuss?

CB: Addressing language barriers is usually the first place that organizations turn to when they start addressing cultural competence, and that’s great. Let’s do that. But it is important to recognize that cultural competence is a separate competence from addressing language barriers and that it may require a different kind of intervention. My impression is that patient safety pays a lot more attention to errors of commission than omission, and a lot of the cultural and linguistic competence errors are errors of omission.


This project was funded under contract number 75Q80119C00004 from the Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality (AHRQ), U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. The authors are solely responsible for this report’s contents, findings, and conclusions, which do not necessarily represent the views of AHRQ. Readers should not interpret any statement in this report as an official position of AHRQ or of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. None of the authors has any affiliation or financial involvement that conflicts with the material presented in this report. View AHRQ Disclaimers
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