The ethics of cultural competence

Acad Med. 2004 Apr;79(4):347-50. doi: 10.1097/00001888-200404000-00012.


Cultural competence curricula have proliferated throughout medical education. Awareness of the moral underpinnings of this movement can clarify the purpose of such curricula for educators and trainees and serve as a way to evaluate the relationship between the ethics of cultural competence and normative Western medical ethics. Though rarely stated explicitly, the essential principles of cultural competence are (1) acknowledgement of the importance of culture in people's lives, (2) respect for cultural differences, and (3) minimization of any negative consequences of cultural differences. Culturally competent clinicians promote these principles by learning about culture, embracing pluralism, and proactive accommodation. Generally, culturally competent care will advance patient autonomy and justice. In this sense, cultural competence and Western medical ethics are mutually supportive movements. However, Western bioethics and the personal ethical commitments of many medical trainees will place limits on the extent to which they will endorse pluralism and accommodation. Specifically, if the values of cultural competence are thought to embrace ethical relativity, inexorable conflicts will be created. The author presents his view of the ethics of cultural competence and places the concepts of cultural competence in the context of Western moral theory. Clarity about the ethics of cultural competence can help educators promote and evaluate trainees' integration of their own moral intuitions, Western medical ethics, and the ethics of cultural competence.

MeSH terms

  • Communication Barriers
  • Cultural Diversity*
  • Education, Medical / ethics
  • Ethics, Medical*
  • Humans
  • Morals
  • Physician-Patient Relations
  • Professional Competence*