Understanding cultural health practices crucial in medicine

LEWISTOWN — Geisinger-Lewistown Hospital School of Nursing seniors visited a Hare Krisna farm, caping off listening to various presentations on different cultural health practices.

“It is important for nurses to have an understanding about different cultural health practices, so that they may provide holistic and indiviualized care to their patients,” said Kimberly Stuck, faculty member.

During one of the presentations, Kay Hamilton, former chief executive officer to the Lewistown Hospital, spoke to being one-quarter Apache Native American. After sharing some of her background, summarizing parts of Native American history, describing various physical characteristics of Native Americans and how many still live in the United States today, Hamilton explained that Native Americans believe that health is defined as being in total harmony with nature and having the ability to survive under exceedingly difficult circumstances, while illness is “a price to be paid for something that happened in the past or something that will happen in the future.”

Hamilton said that many Native Americans suffer from a variety of health problems, including diabetes, alcoholism, mental disorders, and tuberculosis and that infant mortality rates sit around 150 percent greater than Caucasian children. Furthermore, Hamilton said the suicide rate is three times greater among Native Americans than the general population.

Traditional healer methods rely on religious practices, such as utilizing herbs, like dandelions or skunk oil, fasting, purifications and using drums, however more than 50 Native American Health Centers exist on or close to reservations, including 28 hospitals. Hamilton said Native Americans are reluctant to use “white-dominated” health services, in part because of the history between Native Americans and Caucasians, as well as the conflict between “white” doctors’ training and Native American perceptions.

Hamilton encouraged students to do health-related missionary work on reservations.

“I think it is better to help people in your own country first, especially when there is such a clear need as there is on some of our reservations,” Hamilton said. “Furthermore, these people were the First Americans and we took their land, along with their way of life, without consideration of their cultural needs and their beliefs. … People in general don’t think about the plight of the Native Americans and/or simply don’t know about the living conditions on many reservations. There isn’t a lot of attention drawn to the issue.”

In another presentation, Thi Ho, a Vietnamese foreign exchange student at East Juniata High School, said that, though most Vietnamese people go to the doctor right away when they fall ill, some still believe in “ancient treatments” and home remedies. Ho said common remedies include using a paste with medical oil in it and putting it on the soles of their feet to treat the flu, or applying rubbing alcohol to a sprained ankle and wrapping it.

According to the student’s text book, the crucial difference between Asian and Western medicine is the emphasis on prevention, rather than disease and crisis intervention. The book emphasizes that all Asian concepts of health and illness, cure and death, including Vietnamese, are rooted in 5000-year-old Chinese medicine, which is founded on the idea that body, mind and soul are integrated. Asian medical ideology also says that meditation, herbology, acupuncture and spiritual healing encompass several preventive concepts.

Other cultural health practice presentations given this year included Haitian, Spanish-American, Amish and Indonesian. The students were also assigned to research other cultures outlined in their textbook and give their own presentations.

“Being able to identify health values, beliefs and practices in various cultures helps nurses to plan and implement nursing care more effectively,” Stuck said. “Our goal as nurses is to be able to develop a trusting relationship with our patients and their families, regardless of their diversity, so that we are better able to treat them in the hospital or community settings.”

The final culture students learned about was Hare Krishna, during a field trip to the Gita Nagari Farm in Port Royal. Those who practice Hare Krishna eat a plant-based diet and believe that the corticotrophin hormone, which is released in the brain of a slaughtered animal, can be transferred into the person eating the slaughtered meat. While touring the slaughter-free farm for geriatric cows, the students also learned that those who practice Hare Krishna are very personal and individualized with their health care choices, but believe that foods affect the mind, because body and soul are connected in health in their beliefs.

Stuck said the R.N. felt she was able to provide better care for a patient of the Hare Krishna faith following her trip to the farm because she was able to anticipate and understand the patient’s needs.

Students Andrea Melcher, Makayla Reid and Jessie Wagner said they learned helpful new information from their trip to the Hare Krishna farm, as well as the class overall.

Melcher said she enjoyed the cultural health practices class because it helped her realize her own assumptions about different cultures that turned out not to be true.

“It gave you a broader view of people,” Melcher said, adding that the most interesting cultures were the Haitian culture, because she was unfamiliar with it prior to the class and the Amish culture, because of how large the Amish community is in the area.

Reid said it was interesting to learn about the cultural differences and really enjoyed trying different cultural foods. Reid also appreciated learning about the Amish culture, particularly about their pre-natal care and how some Amish even choose to get vaccinations.

“They’re more like us than we think,” Reid said.

Wagner said she valued learning about the Japanese and Chinese cultures because of how they treat and care for their elderly and that the course gave her good insights into different cultures.

“It’s important as nurses to be able to deliver culturally sensitive care,” Wagner said.

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