Understanding the Latino Patient with Cancer

by Beatriz Lorena Hurtado, Bioethics Program Alumna (MSBioethics 2014)

As a Latina working in healthcare I have always felt the responsibility to provide education about my culture, and to clarify cultural differences and misconceptions. It is always surprising to witness how eliminating misconceptions eventually translates into an increase in patient satisfaction, and less apprehension about cultural differences from the healthcare team. This is one of the reasons why, in my view, education on Cultural Competence in healthcare is probably the most appropriate way to avoid generalizations and achieve equality in healthcare.

Latinos currently constitute seventeen percent (17%) of the nation’s population, making them the largest racial and ethnic minority in the US. They are also amongst the fastest growing minorities the United States. Should current demographic trends continue, it is estimated there will be 41 million Latinos in the United States by 2020.

These numbers should not only indicate the rising presence of Latinos in the United States, but also highlight the need for developing pathways to improve language and cultural services in the healthcare arena.

This need is particularly in oncology: as the American Cancer Society notes, cancer is the second leading cause of death for Latinos. It is also important to add that the most common cancer diagnosis in Latino women is breast cancer, while prostate cancer is the most common diagnosis in Latino men (with colon, lung, melanoma, stomach, and liver cancer following closely behind).Therefore, as it happens with any chronic disease, the medical visits are usually recurrent and the treatments involve an extensive group of healthcare professionals.

As a Latina I believe there are three important characteristics of Latino cultural expressions, meanings, and value systems that warrant specific attention:

First, family is the foundation that supports life for Latinos in general. Medical decisions are in most cases a family affair. The presence of family signifies emotional support, empathy, and togetherness, and is always favored in a difficult medical situation. Moreover, if facing a difficult moment or vulnerability, like a cancer diagnosis, family support is at the top of the list of necessities of the Latino patient. Latinos place much of their identity and self-worth into the family structure and customs.

Although it is recognized that the Latin American family has undergone changes in its structure in recent decades, it is important to note that these changes haven’t shifted the sense of group, affective value, and financial support in the immigrant family. Latinos are gregarious, often moving in culturally-defined groups. They also identify themselves within their group and by the role they play in it. Failing to recognize the place family has in medical decisions for Latino patients could be viewed as a lack of acknowledgement of who they are as persons, and their position in the micro universe that is their family life.

Second, in the Latino culture, talking about death is commonly viewed as summoning it. Acknowledging death can be seen as giving up hope, limiting a patient’s chances of surviving and a threat to their recovery. This has obvious implications for conversations about death, end-of-life issues, living wills and advance directives. Also, because of the substantial Catholic background and deep religious roots, most Latinos believe that talking about the possibility of a negative outcome is an expression of limited faith in God. It can symbolize doubt on God’s abilities to heal the sick.

Third, even though Latinos share many characteristics, they are also a very diverse group. They are united in their diversity. For instance, a Latino patient from South America may have a specific cultural response towards the healthcare team (e.g., a more entitled behavior) that may be very different from the cultural response of a Latino patient from Central America (e.g. a more humble and unassuming attitude).

Despite all the similarities that unite Latinos (language, religion, family union, etc.), there are several particular cultural conventions that vary depending on the country from where the person comes. Identifying that the patient may speak Spanish or may come from Latin America represents merely the basic steps in beginning a successful communication, but it does not contribute significantly towards building a strong a fruitful rapport with a Latino patient. To achieve this, establishing a conversation free of narrowly defined cultural assumptions is crucial. Even though Latinos share many characteristics, like the general value placed on family and the inclination to avoid discussions of death, there is a rich diversity of Latino cultures and healthcare providers must make it a point to avoid generalizations.

In the context of the Latino culture, to achieve a culturally competent treatment is to understand their culture and demonstrate respect for their differentiating traits while they are in treatment. This means providing care that recognizes and caters to those cultural differences. By acknowledging their gregarious behavior towards family and group, by attributing their reluctance to plan for the worse to their unceasing hope in their interpretation of death and dying, and by respecting the differences among these common traits, the healthcare team can provide culturally competent care. In turn, this will help the patient feel acknowledged and less intimidated by the medical environment, resulting in a more effective relationship, better care, and better outcomes.

[The contents of this post are solely the responsibility of the author alone and do not represent the views of the Bioethics Program or Union Graduate College.]