Cultural Competence in Public Health Work

November 5, 2021

Cultural competence is defined by the CDC as “a set of congruent behaviors, attitudes, and policies that come together in a system, agency, or among professionals that enables effective work in cross-cultural situations”. The term “culture” in this sense encompasses the different patterns of human behavior demonstrated in language, thoughts, communications, actions, institutions of race, ethnicity, customs, values, beliefs, traditions, religion, or social groups.

Competence” is having the capacity to effectively work as an individual or as an organization within the context of the cultural beliefs, behaviors, and needs that are demonstrated by the target community. Within the realm of public health, cultural competence can significantly impact how well a program is received and sustained within a community. It is imperative that public health organizations and officials be culturally competent and fully aware of the community before implementing any health behaviors.

Understanding the culture of the community you’re working in can be advantageous to containing the spread of diseases, improving sanitation practices, and help communities understand the importance of changed health behaviors. For example, the utilization of gendered roles in a community at risk for the Ebola Virus Disease (EVD) creates a more efficient approach to community surveillance and treatment in areas lacking proper health infrastructure. Supporting women and men in their cultural gender roles by educating women on how to treat family members, quarantine procedures, and personal protection from transmission can reduce the strain put on a country’s limited hospitals/clinics. Likewise, giving otherwise unemployed young men surveillance and community supply management roles has aided in preventing social conflict by giving them the sense of purpose that their culturally propelled role strives for.  

Cultural Competence requires that organizations:

  • Have defined values and principles, and demonstrate attitudes, procedures, behaviors and structures that enable them to work efficiently cross-culturally. 
  • Have the capacity to value diversity, manage the dynamics of differences within the community, research and implement cultural knowledge, and adapt to cultural situations and contexts of the community they are serving.
  • Have the ability to incorporate all of the above aspects in regard to policy making, practice, service delivery, as well as pass on these abilities to potential stakeholders and employees for future sustainable programs. 

International HELP utilizes different resources as well as thorough research to assess the cultural needs of the communities it targets. Cultural norms, traditions, beliefs, and religious aspects are all taken into consideration when planning a public health outreach within this organization to ensure an effective and sustainable program is implemented. 


Cultural Competence. CDC Website. 2015.

Lack of Cultural Competency in International Aid Responses: The Ebola Outbreak in Liberia. Frontiers in Public Health. January 31, 2017;5(5).

Cluster of Ebola Virus Disease Linked to a Single Funeral — Moyamba District, Sierra Leone, 2014. CDC Website. 2016.

- Hayley DeHart, IHELP Intern

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