How to develop cultural understanding of patients in medical tourism?

In medical tourism, cultural similarity is a significant determinant in destination selection. People try to avoid cultural shock. This is one of the main reasons Americans prefer Mexico and Muslim travelers most often choose GCC and Middle East countries with advanced medical facilities. Koreans residing in New Zealand fly to their motherland for medical assistance a trend also prevalent among Dominicans residing in the US.

easy to open up to the physicians by communicating in their mother tongue

It is to be noted that preference for cultural similarity is mainly driven by religion, language and long-standing societal customs and practices. Few research reports have spotted significant differences in cross-cultural perceptions among Chinese, Japanese and Korean medical tourists in destination selection, inconveniences and preferred treatments.  Studies also support cultural similarity as an important factor for international patients preferring Iran.

Geographical proximity is also another important factor impacting the decision-making of medical travelers which often gets linked to cultural similarity.  Malaysia is a bright example of being highly-favored by travelers from Islamic countries along with others.

Cultural understanding facilitates bonding between patients and the provider:

bonding between patients and the provider

Understand the patient first, next his ailments. Unless the patient-provider compatibility builds, proper healthcare assistance cannot be delivered. Destinations enjoying top ranks in the global medical tourism index have prioritized developing a cultural understanding of patients along with providing world-class treatments and assistance.

Cultural understanding and appreciation is ought to be a bilateral process but given the vulnerable condition of the patient, the onus is more on the providers. They should go extra miles to build rapport with foreign patients.

Amidst cultural compatibility:

  • Patients find easy to open up to the physicians by communicating in their mother tongue.
  • Physicians can be prompt in diagnosis and setting the treatment plan.
  • Patients get the feel of being duly respected and feel at home.
  • They have the comfort that their cultural and religious requirements will be met.
  • Trust builds 

Identifying the probable areas of conflict:

Preference for same-sex medical care

Modern medicine has brought immense benefits to mankind but it hasn’t been successful enough to bridge all the gaps within society. Diverse global cultures and traditional practices have a strong impact on peoples’ health beliefs and medicinal practices.

This goes a long way in shaping up the cultural outlook of patients towards medical treatments. While things may remain apparently fine when these are confined within a geographical region or communities, conflicts arise when patients step out of their cultural habitat. Cultural shock is inevitable.

Cultural conflict is mostly seen in:

  • Communication owing to language barriers
  • Differences in medical beliefs
  • Marked differences in medical procedures and applications. Preference for same-sex medical care and attendance is common.
  • Dress code
  • Decision making by males and females.
  • A multidisciplinary approach to treatment involving physicians, specialists, nurses, attendants and other paramedical staff creates confusion among patients.
  • Etiquette and behavior
  • Diverse food habits
  • Religious practices

Strategies to develop cultural understanding of patients in medical tourism:

Healthcare organizations:


  1. Build a list of different cultural backgrounds of patients visiting frequently.
  2. Hire professional interpreters to ease out the communication process. They should display the eagerness to help and be modest in behavior.
  3. Study thoroughly their traditions, practices, medical beliefs and etiquettes. Make a note of their likes and dislikes as well.
  4. Create a video presentation highlighting all services both medical and non-medical, facilities, facilities and staff available and send it to the medical travelers prior to their visit.
  5. Grow cultural empathy. Show respect to the patients’ culture even if they seem to be weird. This should be practiced by all staff handling foreign patients.
  6. Provide proper training to staff regarding handling international patients.
  7. Have patience even if the patient seems to be irritably nagging. Understand their vulnerable situation as they have traveled to an alien land seeking help.
  8. Have a keen watchful eye. Observe the patients’ body language and approach. Are they in hesitation?
  9. Grow a comfort zone by asking about the patient’s background and family without infringing on his/her privacy.
  10. Stay non-judgmental regarding any information passed by the patient. This may carry a different value from yours.
  11. Follow the suggestions and advice of patients regarding maintaining proper communication with his/her family members or companion.
  12. Create proper facilities based on the patients’ cultural needs:
  • Catering service:

Catering service

Food habits vary with person and culture. It doesn’t remain within the simple classification of vegetarian or non-vegetarian. Even ambiguities exist between veg and non-veg food items. Hospitals/clinics must be aware of the choices and make suitable arrangements.

Certain food items may be detested by medical travelers hailing from specific cultural backgrounds. During fasting months, people following a specific religion may consume specific food items at specific times of the day.

  • Medications:

Alcohol-based medications may not be accepted by followers of Islam. During Ramadan, they may not be willing to consume oral medications.

  • Arranging spaces for religious practices:

Arranging spaces for religious practices

People resort to god in times of distress. Praying several times a day is a regular practice for the followers of Islam. Arranging proper spaces to carry out basic rituals enhances patients’ comfort.

  • Maternity and female care:

Medical tourists may seek to perform certain traditional birth rituals before and after delivery. Make provisions for these if possible without causing any harm to the mother and baby. If there is any safety concern, it should be explained politely to the patient party.

  • Declaring death:

Declaring death

This is the most unwanted situation but it may happen. Utmost care should be taken in declaring the death of the patient. One should take cognizance of the cultural and socio-economic background of the patient party while making this declaration. The patient party should be treated with enough sympathy along with offering proper consolation.

Medical Tourism facilitators:

The level of cultural understanding is tested the moment a prospective medical traveler approaches a facilitator. It may be a short email or a brief telephone call. Addressing the prospective patient respecting his/her cultural background is the first step in rapport building.

Most of the points discussed above are applicable for medical tourism facilitators as well. Additionally, they need to put in efforts to select the right persons and partners in the network to provide the best service and support fitting the patients’ cultural needs.  A person well versed in Arabic and Islamic culture can serve as the liaison officer to handle patients from Arab nations and the like.

Strategies for prospective medical travelers:

medical facilitator

Globalization of healthcare has offered you a great opportunity to access world-class medical treatment in your choicest destination. You get an exposure to explore a land and culture, which may be entirely different from your motherland. Instead of getting bewildered, adopt a few strategies to accept cultural differences sportingly and get the best outcome of your venture.

  • Be open-minded. Do not carry any preconceived notions likely to influence your logical analysis.
  • Get aware of the basic culture and etiquettes of the destination country. Consult your medical tourism facilitator.
  • Check that your medical facilitator is also aware of your cultural background.
  • Look for the destinations with cultural similarities of yours but always weigh other vital criteria too. Nothing can be better if the destination speaks and understands your language.
  • If you fear language will be a problem, seek for an interpreter well ahead.
  • Maintain politeness with everybody you interact.
  • Be compliant with the medical norms and cooperate with physicians, attendants and other staff. Understand they too are trying to give you the best support.
  • Every healthcare organization runs on specified rules and regulations. Maintain discipline by abiding with these rules. If possible, get an idea of these regulations beforehand.
  • Follow the dress code and customary etiquettes of the destination country.
  • Check the food habits of the country. Common staple dishes may not be palatable for you.
  • If you have special dietary needs, inform your medical tourism facilitator or the hospital well ahead.
  • Be cautious in word usage. Some words may be considered offensive in the destination country.

The good thing is modern travelers are well-informed. Developing cultural understanding largely depends on the intent of both the provider and the patient. It is a well-nurtured practice that ultimately leads to enhanced patient satisfaction, lesser medical errors, better treatment outcomes and more patient referrals.

Dr Prem Jagyasi (c)

Dr Prem is an award winning strategic leader, renowned author, publisher and highly acclaimed global speaker. Aside from publishing a bevy of life improvement guides, Dr Prem runs a network of 50 niche websites that attracts millions of readers across the globe. Thus far, Dr Prem has traveled to more than 40 countries, addressed numerous international conferences and offered his expert training and consultancy services to more than 150 international organizations. He also owns and leads a web services and technology business, supervised and managed by his eminent team. Dr Prem further takes great delight in travel photography.

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