April is National Minority Health Month, which the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) uses to highlight the importance of reducing health disparities and improving the health of racial and ethnic minority and American Indian/Alaska Native communities. This year, the theme is “Better Health Through Better Understanding.”
The CDC’s goal is to provide these communities with culturally and linguistically competent healthcare services, information and resources. As the CDC states, “When patients are provided with culturally and linguistically appropriate information, they are empowered to create healthier outcomes for themselves and their communities.”
Health disparities are “differences in health outcomes that are closely with social, economic and environmental disadvantage.” Importantly, while the focus of this piece is on minority health, these disparities are rooted in the context in which people live their lives, and obstacles to better health may arise based not only on a person’s racial or ethnic group, but also on their religion; socioeconomic status; gender; age; mental health; cognitive, sensory or physical disability; sexual orientation or gender identity; geographic location; or other characteristics historically linked to discrimination or exclusion.
So, how are these disparities reflected in the health and health literacy of our communities The CDC shares the following statistics:
It is estimated that only 14% of the U.S. population has proficient health literacy, which is defined as the ability to obtain, read, understand and use healthcare information in order to make appropriate health decisions and follow instructions for treatment.
Nearly 20% of people in the U.S. speak a language other than English at home.
It is estimated that more than 60% of racial and ethnic minority patients over the age of 18 believe it is at least somewhat important to visit a healthcare provider who shares or understands their culture.
What does this mean to exercise professionals and health coaches
Having the ability to serve communities outside your own or to have a thriving business in a multicultural community requires an ability to be empathetic and connect with individuals whose backgrounds and lifestyles may be very different from your own. Think about the third bullet above for a moment: It’s likely that many people feel that same way when choosing which exercise professional or health coach to hire.
So, unless you share a potential client’s cultural background, it’s essential that you educate yourself. Of course, this work must be done before meeting them, which means you have to put the work in to better understand and relate to those people whom you’re trying to serve.
For example, take the time to learn about various religious observances and how they might affect a person’s nutritional intake or ability to exercise at different times on the calendar. Or, look around your facility and identify areas where you could improve access or make people feel more welcomed and empowered to exercise in that space. Does your signage show people of all shapes, sizes and colors.
Review public transportation schedules and the arrival and departure times at the stops nearest your facility and offer classes or sessions at times or in locations that better align with those schedules. Another option would be to move a class from a gym that may be hard to reach to a local park that is more easily accessible, which is a great way to improve the equity, diversity and inclusion of the work you do every day to improve people’s health.
Step outside your own experience and use your cultural competence to understand and interact with people from other cultures. Identifying misconceptions and addressing them by learning more about participants’ beliefs, attitudes, and lifestyles through the use of effective communication skills will help ensure that each client and potential client is treated with the dignity and respect they deserve.
Finally, never lose sight of the fact that enhancing your cultural competence; understanding the value of equity, diversity and inclusion; and practicing empathy are all part of the ongoing and vital work of being an effective exercise professional or health coach.