Journal of General Internal Medicine

, Volume 15, Issue 2, pp 92–96

Bridging cultural differences in medical practice

The case of discussing negative information with navajo patients
Original Articles


BACKGROUND: Cultural differences between doctors and their patients are common and may have important implications for the clinical encounter. For example, some Navajo patients may regard advance care planning discussions to be a violation of their traditional values.

OBJECTIVE: To learn from Navajo informants a culturally competent approach for discussing negative information.

DESIGN: Focused ethnography.

SETTING: Navajo Indian reservation, northeast Arizona.

PARTICIPANTS: Thirty-four Navajo informants, including patients, traditional healers, and biomedical health care providers.

MEASUREMENT: In-depth interviews.

MAIN RESULTS: Strategies for discussing negative information were identified and organized into four stages. Assessment of patients is important because some Navajo patients may be troubled by discussing negative information, and others may be unwilling to have such discussions at all. Preparation entails cultivating a trusting relationship with patients, involving family members, warning patients about the nature of the discussion as well as communicating that no harm is intended, and facilitating the involvement of traditional healers. Communication should proceed in a caring, kind, and respectful manner, consistent with the Navajo concept k’é. Reference to a third party is suggested when discussing negative information, as is respecting the power of language in Navajo culture by framing discussions in a positive way. Follow-through involves continuing to care for patients and fostering hope.

CONCLUSIONS: In-depth interviews identified many strategies for discussing negative information with Navajo patients. Future research could evaluate these recommendations. The approach described could be used to facilitate the bridging of cultural differences in other settings.

Key words

cultural differences Navajo patients negative information cross-cultural ethics 


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Copyright information

© Society of General Internal Medicine 2000

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.the Department of MedicineJohns Hopkins University School of MedicineBaltimore
  2. 2.Johns Hopkins Bayview Medical Center, and the Bioethics InstituteJohns Hopkins UniversityBaltimore
  3. 3.the Department of AnthropologyUniversity of WashingtonSeattle

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