Constructing cultural diversity: a study of framing clients and culture in a community health centre

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Acharya, Manju Prava
University of Lethbridge. Faculty of Arts and Science
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Lethbridge, Alta. : University of Lethbridge, Faculty of Arts and Science, 1996
Introduction The clinical community in Western society has long practised medicine as organized by "two dominant principles: 1) the principle of essentialism which states that there is a fixed "natural" border between disease and health, and 2) the principle of specific treatment which states that having revealed a disease, the doctor can, at least in principle, find the one, correct treatment. These principles have served as the legitimization of the traditional, hierarchical organization of health-care" (Jensen, 1987:19). A main feature of medical practices based on these principles has been to address specific kinds of problems impeding or decaying health. This research is centrally concerned with essentialism and the institutional fixation of problems as two important nodal points of Canada's biomedical value and belief system. More specifically, I hope to show in an organized way how these principles shape staff knowledge of client and culture in a community health centre (CHC) in Lethbridge, Alberta. My analysis is based on four guiding points: 1) that in our polyethnic society health care institutions are massively challenged with actual and perceived cultural diversity and cross cultural barriers to which their staff feel increasingly obliged to respond with their services; 2) while the client cultural diversity is "real", institutional responses depend primarily on how that diversity is imagined by staff -often as a threat to a health institution's sociocultural world; 3) that problem-specific, medicalized thinking is central in this community health centre, even though its mandate is health promotion and this problem orientation often combines with medical essentialism to reduce "culturally different" to a set of client labels, some of which are problematic; and 4) while a "lifestyle model" and other models for health promotion are at present widely advocated and are to be found centrally in this institution's (CHC) charter, they have led to little institutional accomodation to cultural diversity. In this thesis my aim is to present an ethnographic portrait of a community health centre, where emphasis is given to the distinctive formal and informal "formative processess" (Good 1994) of social construction of certain perceived common core challenges facing the Canadian biomedical community today - challenges concerning cultural difference and its incorporation into health care perception and practice. I am particularly interested in institutions subscribing to a "health promotion model" of health care, a term I have borrowed from Ewles and Simnett (1992). Ewles and Simnett descrive the meaning of "health promotion" as earlier defined by WHO (World Health Organization): this perspective is derived from a conception of "health" as the extent to which an individual or group is able, on the on hand, to realise aspirations and satisfy needs; and, on the other hand, to change or cope with the environment. Health is, therefore seen as a resource for everyday life, not the objective of living; it is a positive concept emphasising social and personal resources, as well as physical capacities (Ewles & Simnett, 1992:20) Health is therefore concerned with "a state of complete physical, mental and social wellbeing, and not merely the absence of disease and infirmity" (Ewles and Simnett, 1992:6), I am interested in determing how threats to this defintion prevail in a community health centre's ideology of preventive care, and how that ideology encodes dimensions of diversity. I, however, want to go much further than this by exploring everyday staff discourse and practice, to understand how client cultural diversity is formed and informed by what staff do and say. How, in short, do individuals based in a health promotion organization socially construct their clients as objects of institutional concern? We need, as Young (1982) suggest, "to examine the social condition of knowledge production" in an institutionalized health care service provision subculture. There are, I believe, also practical reasons for conducting this research. Over the past ten years the Canadian health care system increasingly has had to focus on two potentially contradictory goals: reducing costs, and lessening persistent inequalities in health status among key groups and categories of persons in the Canadian population. Many now argue that one of the most central dimensions of the latter - of perisistent health inequalities in Canada - is ethnocultural. Few would seriously argue, for example, that Canadian First Nation health statistics are anything but appalling. Moreover, radical changes in immigration patterns over the past three decades have greatly increased urban Canadian cultural diversity. Caring "at home" now assumes international dimensions (McAdoo, 1993; Butrin, 1992; Buchignani, 1991; Indra, 1991, 1987; Galanti, 1991; Dobson, 1991; Waxler-Morrison, 1990; Quereshi, 1989). A growing voiced desire to provide more pluralistic health care and health care promotion has become persistently heard throughout the clinical community in Canada (Krepps and Kunimoto, 1994; Masi, 1993). Even so, for many health professionals cultural difference evidently remians either irrelevant or a threat to the established order of things. Applied research on health care institutions undertaken to investigate how better to meet these challenges nevrtheless remains very incomplete and highly concentrated in two broad areas. One of these is structural factors within the institution that limit cross-cultural access (Herzfeld, 1992; Hanson, 1980). Some of these studies have shown the prevalence of a strictly conservative institutional culture that frequently makes frontline agency workers gate-keeprs, who actively (if unconsciously) maintain client-institution stratification (Ervin, 1993; Demain, 1989; Ng, 1987; Murphy, 1987; Foster-Carter, 1987; de Voe 1981). In addition, extensive research has been conducted on disempowered minority groups. This research has examined the frequency, effectiveness and manner with which ethnic and Native groups make use of medical services. Some institutional research on cross-cultral issues shows that under appropriate conditions health professional like nurses have responded effectively to client needs by establishing culturally sensitive hiring and training policies and by restructuring their health care organizations (Terman, 1993; Henderson, 1992; Davis, 1992; Henkle, 1990; Burner, 1990). Though promising, this research remains radically insufficient for learning purposes. In particular, little work has been done on how such institutions come to "think" (Douglas, 1986) about cultural difference, form mandates in response to pressure to better address culturally different populations and work them into the institution's extant sub-cultral ideas and practice (Habarad, 1987; Leininger, 1978), or on how helping instiutions categorize key populations such as "Indians" or "Vietnamese" as being culturally different, or assign to each a suite of institutionally meaningful cultural attributes (as what becomes the institution's working sense of what is, say, "Vietnamese culture"). This is so despite the existence of a long and fruitful ethnographic institutional research tradition, grounded initially in theories of status and role (Frankel, 1988; Taylor, 1970; Parson, 1951), symbolic ineractionism (Goffman, 1967, 1963, 1961), ethnomethodology (Garfinkle, 1975), and organizational subcultures (Douglas, 1992, 1986, 1982; Abegglen & Stalk, 1985; Ohnuki-Tierney, 1984; Teski, 1981; Blumers, 1969). More recent work on anthropological social exchange theory (Barth, 1981), on institutional and societal discipline (Herzfeld, 1992; Foucault, 1984, 1977), on the institution-client interface (Shield, 1988; Schwartzman, 1987, Ashworth, 1977, 1976, 1975), and on framing the client (Hazan, 1994; Denzin, 1992; Howard, 1991; Goffman, 1974). I also hope that this study makes a contribution to the study of health care and diversity in southern Alberta. Small city ethnic relations in Canada have been almost systematically ignored by researchers, and similar research has not been conducted in this part of Alberta. Local diversity is significant: three very large Indian reserves are nearby, and the city itself has a diverse ethnic, linguistic and ethno-religious population. Also, significant province wide restructuring of health care delivery was and is ongoing, offering both the pitfalls and potentials of quick institutional change. Perhaps some of the findings can contribute to making the future system more responsive to diversity than the present one.
202 p. ; 29 cm.
Public health -- Alberta -- Social aspects , Public health administration -- Alberta -- Social aspects , Public health nursing -- Alberta , Public health nurses -- Alberta , Transcultural nursing , Transcultural medical care , Public health nurses , Dissertations, Academic