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Work with International Healthcare Colleagues

Work with International Healthcare Colleagues

Immigrant workers are important contributors to the US healthcare system. Some 13 percent of healthcare employees in the US -- or 1.1 million -- are from other countries, according to a report from the American Immigration Council. More than 11 percent of registered nurses, 25 percent of physicians and nearly 15 percent of pharmacists in the US are immigrants.

Being part of a multicultural staff with its mixture of nationalities, cultures and training backgrounds presents a series of challenges and opportunities. These 10 tips will help you work effectively in the multinational environment of today's healthcare organizations.

Remember: You're More Alike

When it comes to how you want to be treated and how you want to treat patients, you and your diverse coworkers probably have more similarities than differences. "The values of foreign-trained healthcare professionals are very similar," says Mireille Kingma, a consultant on nursing and health policy at the International Council of Nurses and author of Nurses on the Move: Migration and the Global Health Care Economy. For example, nurses from many countries are willing to go out on a limb for their patients, even occasionally questioning the wisdom of physicians' orders.

Show Them the Ropes

Help your coworker when he needs it most. "Migrant workers can be -- for a certain period -- disoriented and more vulnerable to exploitation by employers," Kingma says. Your help when your coworker needs it will likely engender personal and professional loyalty, which can come in handy when you need to swap shifts or seek feedback on handling a difficult patient, for example.

Value Differences

Learn to value different perspectives when caring for patients with varying backgrounds. Healthcare workers of diverse nationalities "need to take some time to develop cultural competence and understand each other's points of view and customs," says Mary Jane Harris, PT, director of accreditation for the American Physical Therapy Association. If you see an unmet need for cultural training, discuss it with your human resources department.

Learn from Each Other

Assume that you and your coworkers of different nationalities have much to learn from each other. "The exchange of ideas between professionals is an enrichment, but it may be perceived as a threat by some," Kingma says. "So it's important to explain why you practice the profession the way you do."

Help with Language Training

Linguistic competence is relative: Your coworker from abroad most likely speaks English better than you speak his native language. Respect language differences, and point colleagues to educational resources where appropriate.

Be Inclusive

On the flip side, a common language may bind a group of workers from another country. Make an effort to bring these employees into your own workplace social circle; don't assume they're intentionally isolating themselves.

Accept Cultural Beliefs

Respect coworkers' cultural taboos. For example, "people from Islamic countries have a gender issue," Harris says. Among physical therapists, men will treat only men, and women only women, she explains. Look for a workaround rather than a confrontation.

Involve HR When Appropriate

Tensions may arise between American healthcare workers and their supervisors from other countries. If the situation begins to affect your performance, approach your human resources department or diversity officer for help. Explain that your top priority is optimal patient care.

Elevate Cultural Competence

Prod your employer to create an environment that makes a virtue of differences in nationality and culture among both staff and patients. For example, Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston sends all workers who have patient contact to a workshop on culturally competent care.

Improve the Profession Together

In an era when many Americans worry their jobs will be shipped overseas or taken over by immigrant workers, some healthcare professionals may be concerned that their own jobs are at risk. But in the healthcare industry, staffing shortages in most occupations are projected to continue for the foreseeable future. Work with your colleagues to improve pay and working conditions for all healthcare professionals.

In 21st-century America, patients and their healthcare providers are becoming more multicultural every year. Healthcare professionals who learn to work effectively with their international colleagues are likely to provide the best patient care -- and earn superior professional rewards.

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