Increasing the cultural competence of physicians is one means of responding to demographic changes in the USA, as well as reducing health disparities. However, in spite of the development and implementation of cultural competence training programs, little is known about the ways cultural competence manifests itself in medical encounters. This paper will present a model of culturally competent communication that offers a framework of studying cultural competence 'in action.' First, we describe four critical elements of culturally competent communication in the medical encounter--communication repertoire, situational awareness, adaptability, and knowledge about core cultural issues. We present a model of culturally competent physician communication that integrates existing frameworks for cultural competence in patient care with models of effective patient-centered communication. The culturally competent communication model includes five communication skills that are depicted as elements of a set in which acquisition of more skills corresponds to increasing complexity and culturally competent communication. The culturally competent communication model utilizes each of the four critical elements to fully develop each skill and apply increasingly sophisticated, contextually appropriate communication behaviors to engage with culturally different patients in complex interactions. It is designed to foster maximum physician sensitivity to cultural variation in patients as the foundation of physician-communication competence in interacting with patients.