From Paternalistic to Patronizing: How Cultural Competence Can Be Ethically Problematic

HEC Forum 30 (1):13-29 (2018)
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Cultural competence literature and training aim to equip healthcare workers to better understand patients of different cultures and value systems, in an effort to ensure effective and equitable healthcare services for diverse patient populations. However, without nuanced awareness and contextual knowledge, the values embedded within cultural competence practice may cripple rather than empower the very people they mean to respect. A narrow cultural view can lessen cultural understanding rather than grow it. In its first part, this paper argues that a hasty, unrestrained, and uneducated willingness to accept something as a cultural good, despite being well intentioned, can still cause significant harms—particularly when based on false, misinformed, and stereotypical conceptions—including the minimization of issues, the reinforcement of stereotypes, and the impediment of cultural change. The second part of this paper examines medical autonomy within the context of Saudi Arabian women. It pushes back on the common perception that Saudi women, by virtue of culture and religion, view dependency on and deference to male relatives as a cultural good. Through a historical examination and a presentation of the current women’s movement in Saudi Arabia, it is argued that the continued assumption that personal agency is a value external to Saudi women is false, misguided, and ethically problematic. Lastly, this paper considers some approaches to help providers navigate the narrow grounds between paternalism and patronization when caring for patients.



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