By Jenny Song
Close the disparity gap with tailor-made health messages
By Jenny Song
Phyllis Pettit Nassi is acutely aware of the importance of demonstrating cultural awareness and sensitivity when reaching out to the Native American community. Nassi, the manager of special populations at the Huntsman Cancer Institute at the University of Utah in Salt Lake City, is of Cherokee and Otoe-Missouria descent, and was raised on Navajo, Hopi and Zuni reservations.
“I’m very familiar with the Indian Health Service and what it’s like to be on the other side,” she says. Frequently, when researchers do projects on a reservation, “people just fly in, do the business, do the examinations, get the data and leave.”
So in 2001, when she joined the Huntsman Cancer Institute and began developing programs to serve special populations, Nassi asked researchers and doctors at the cancer institute to visit an Indian reservation to participate in a sacred ritual known as the sweat lodge ceremony. During the ceremony inside a lodge, people say prayers and sing traditional songs. Her idea was to promote trust between the community and the staff, she says, “allowing the community to see staff members embracing their cultural traditions.”
The response, from both sides, was overwhelmingly positive and moved the relationship to a whole new level, says Nassi. Since then, inviting staff to participate in the sweat lodge ceremony has become a tradition of her program.
“In any arena where you have a strong cultural background in the population that you’re working with, whether it’s the Hmong or Korean or Latino, there are cultural issues that play a large part when it comes to health,” says Nassi. “And so when you want to do education and do outreach, you really have to take into consideration what those cultural issues are, and how best to communicate.”
Get to Know the Culture
Eliminating disparities in health care communication requires knowledge of the culture you’re serving and the ability to deliver culturally competent messages, says Vish Viswanath, a health care communications specialist and an associate professor at the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute and the Harvard School of Public Health, in Boston.