While health, illness and disease are influenced by biological factors, they can also be influenced by social, economic and cultural characteristics of the society in which people live (Helman, 2000; Clarke, 2001). Culture provides a framework within which individuals view and make sense of the world and a set of guidelines which inform ideas, beliefs, values and behaviours (Helman, 2000). Culture is transmitted from one generation to the next, but it is not fixed and involves a process of adaptation and change, rendering generalisations unhelpful if not damaging (Helman, 2000). For example, the formation of fixed ideas about the health beliefs of any particular ethnic group might not be useful if false assumptions are made. As a consequence of acculturation, long-held cultural beliefs may give way to those of the host society. Lay definitions of health, illness and disease are thus embedded in wider socio-cultural contexts and as such are influenced by prevailing social norms and values (Clarke, 2001; Blaxter, 2004). As such, people in different social classes and members of different cultures may hold differing views concerning the nature of health and illness. Many lay beliefs about health and illness adopt a holistic approach and consequently may be at odds with professional notions of health, illness and disease, which have tended to adhere to the bio-medical model often associated with western medicine.
It is impossible for healthcare professionals working in very diverse societies to know about all the cultural groups that they will meet. However, it is possible to develop culture-generic competences which entail a deep understanding of how cultural identity and health beliefs influence health, and also how organisational or societal structures can either promote or hinder culturally competent healthcare (Papadopoulos (2003). It is also possible to utilise culture-generic competences in order to develop culture-specific competences, as healthcare professionals acquire knowledge of particular communities.
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Blaxter, M. (2004) Health. Cambridge: Polity Press
Clarke, A. (2001) The Sociology of Healthcare. Harlow: Pearson Educational Ltd.
Helman, C. G. (2000) Culture, health and illness (4th Ed.). Oxford: Butterworth Heinemann