Student Success - Cultural Competency and Better Healthcare

Student Success - Cultural Competency and Better Healthcare

Cultural competency is all about understanding similarities and respecting differences within other cultures.  For Samantha Bivins and Jessica Irvin Cranford, two occupational therapy students at Winston-Salem State University, their participation in an intercultural fieldwork practicum in Costa Rica this past summer was an enriching experience, both professionally and personally.

"We want the students to have a holistic experience," said Dr. Darlene Perez-Brown, clinical associate professor and academic fieldwork coordinator in the Occupational Therapy Department at Winston-Salem State University (WSSU). "The students not only learned about occupational therapy in another country, but they learned about culture in their day to day interactions with other students and with patients, visiting community sites, learning about the country and enjoying local food.

Occupational Therapy Students in Costa Rica"I wanted to go to learn what the practice of OT (occupational therapy) was like in other countries," said Cranford.  "I saw that the culture of OT is the same – working to help people improve their quality of life – and that created a common bond for all of us."

Cranford and Irvin worked with students from Universidad Santa Paula in San Jose to design and implement a fall prevention program for older adults that belong to a club called Corazones de Oro (Hearts of Gold).  More than 60 seniors heard about risk factors, home modifications and adaptive equipment that could make their lives safer.  Of course, the students had to adapt to the cultural differences for senior citizens.  In the U.S., OT programs help them learn the safest way to get in and out of a car.  In Costa Rica, they were demonstrating how to safely get on and off the bus or how to maneuver along cracked sidewalks.

Then there was their time at a pediatric clinic in Guadalupe, where WSSU students assisted occupational therapists in making modifications to adapt wheelchairs for children with developmental disabilities. Bivins said "I had never used a sewing machine before, but in Costa Rica I sewed a foot strap for a wheelchair."

"Here, we order the equipment that we need," Brown explained.  "There, they look at a catalog, create the blueprint, and make the piece of equipment needed.  Students are placed in a position of being resourceful, and use critical thinking and problem solving skills at a higher level than in the classroom setting.

The two students also had full days of OT clinics, where they learned about areas of practice such as sensory integration and were introduced to a Snoezelen multi-sensory lab.  The lab is filled with different colored lights, textured mats and beds and other items that the therapist could use to introduce the patient to various stimuli depending on individual needs.

As for the experience beyond the clinical work, both students appreciated what they referred to as “no tourist mentality.”  They were able to live like the locals, including eating fruits they never heard of before and riding the bus.

"We've talked about cultural competency in class, but experiencing it makes a difference," Cranford said.  "We had to develop plans for clients, implement those plans, and get feedback.  It taught me to better think on the fly.  It also was great to practice OT skills without the pressure of being graded.  So, the time in Costa Rica certainly provided lessons that I will not forget."

"We, as professionals, will work with all kinds of people from a variety of backgrounds," added Bivins.  "I believe in order to be effective, it is important to recognize differences and learn about them.  However, it is equally important to be humble and sensitive about things you really don’t know and to be aware of your own attitudes about people who are different."

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