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Chilean Healthcare, Up Close and Personal

Nursing Students Experience 'Culturally Competent Care'

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Seven nursing students in the new Global Health Experience course traveled to Chile during winter break to see how healthcare delivery is affected by cultural differences.

By Karen Angelo

While students can learn in the classroom about the importance of “culturally competent care,” nothing beats seeing firsthand how another country’s traditions and beliefs affect the delivery of care. 

Asst. Prof. of Nursing Valerie King led a group of seven nursing students in the new Global Health Experience course to Chile during winter break to experience healthcare delivery in a different culture. The students documented their daily observations and experiences in a blog.

“Seeing Chilean culture and healthcare will help me in my future nursing career,” says senior nursing student Sara Pietila. “Now, every time I hear the words ‘culturally competent nursing,’ I understand how language, beliefs and values affect care.” 

The group visited psychiatric hospitals and various inpatient and outpatient psychiatric settings in Talca, Santiago and Chillan. The facilities ranged from a small inpatient unit of patients with mild to moderate psychological disorders to a community outpatient setting that worked with patients to return them to independent living. 

Assoc. Prof. Manuel Cifuentes of Work Environment, a native of Chile who worked as a psychiatrist in the country, coordinated the visits to the healthcare facilities and also participated in the six-hour seminar that prepared the students for the trip. 

“This experience showed students how to overcome obstacles to care – whether it’s a lack of resources, not speaking the same language, a crisis like the 2010 earthquake or political unrest – they learned to deepen their understanding and come up with a solution that’s right for that culture,” says Cifuentes.

The students witnessed the dedication and devotion of various health care providers – including nurses, doctors, psychologists and, social workers – to people with mental illness.

Senior nursing student Henson Phan says: “There seemed to be a strong bond between staff members and patients that was built on trust, respect and compassion. A team of psychiatrists, psychologists, and social workers helped patients become more independent by teaching them skills to function well in society.” 

Some of the students found it challenging to communicate through an interpreter, but in the process, discovered something more powerful than words. 

Pietila says: “Even with the language barrier, I was still able to connect with patients. A warm welcoming smile, a hug with a kiss on the cheek or a handshake all reinforced the importance of nonverbal communication in relating to patients.” 

King also helped the students understand how the history, geography, politics, economy and societal forces affect the health of a nation. The group visited the city of Constitucion, hit hard by the 2010 earthquake and tsunami.

“We discussed how these tragedies cause so much suffering, but at the same time allow society a chance to rebuild and address the community’s health and social needs,” says King. “We were impressed with the resilience of the mental healthcare providers’ response to these disasters, as they continued to provide much needed services to the people of Talca.”

Junior nursing student Allison Read appreciated that Chileans placed great importance on mental health. 

She says: “I learned that no matter what field of nursing I enter, psychiatric and mental health training can be applied to any field of nursing we may enter. We are pioneers in that we will use knowledge and experience from this international experience to educate fellow nursing students, nurses, patients and the community on what we learned and how we can improve our own healthcare system.”

Nursing Students in Chile