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Cultural diversity teaching and issues of uncertainty: the findings of a qualitative study.

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journal contribution
posted on 24.10.2012, 09:02 by N Dogra, J Giordano, N France
BACKGROUND: There is considerable ambiguity in the subjective dimensions that comprise much of the relational dynamic of the clinical encounter. Comfort with this ambiguity, and recognition of the potential uncertainty of particular domains of medicine (e.g.--cultural factors of illness expression, value bias in diagnoses, etc) is an important facet of medical education. This paper begins by defining ambiguity and uncertainty as relevant to clinical practice. Studies have shown differing patterns of students' tolerance for ambiguity and uncertainty that appear to reflect extant attitudinal predispositions toward technology, objectivity, culture, value- and theory-ladeness, and the need for self-examination. This paper reports on those findings specifically related to the theme of uncertainty as relevant to teaching about cultural diversity. Its focus is to identify how and where the theme of certainty arose in the teaching and learning of cultural diversity, what were the attitudes toward this theme and topic, and how these attitudes and responses reflect and inform this area of medical pedagogy. METHODS: A semi-structured interview was undertaken with 61 stakeholders (including policymakers, diversity teachers, students and users). The data were analysed and themes identified. RESULTS: There were diverse views about what the term cultural diversity means and what should constitute the cultural diversity curriculum. There was a need to provide certainty in teaching cultural diversity with diversity teachers feeling under considerable pressure to provide information. Students discomfort with uncertainty was felt to drive cultural diversity teaching towards factual emphasis rather than reflection or taking a patient centred approach. CONCLUSION: Students and faculty may feel that cultural diversity teaching is more about how to avoid professional, medico-legal pitfalls, rather than improving the patient experience or the patient-physician relationship. There may be pressure to imbue cultural diversity issues with levels of objectivity and certainty representative of other aspects of the medical curriculum (e.g.--biochemistry). This may reflect a particular selection bias for students with a technocentric orientation. Inadvertently, medical education may enhance this bias through training effects, and accommodate disregard for subjectivity, over-reliance upon technology and thereby foster incorrect assumptions of objective certainty. We opine that it is important to teach students that technology cannot guarantee certainty, and that dealing with subjectivity, diversity, ambiguity and uncertainty is inseparable from the personal dimension of medicine as moral enterprise. Uncertainty is inherent in cultural diversity so this part of the curriculum provides an opportunity to address the issue as it relates to patient care.


This work was supported, in part, by a Hunt-Travis Foundation Grant, and funding from the Center for Clinical Bioethics, Georgetown University Medical Center, Washington, DC (JG).



Dogra, N., Giordano, J. & France, N. Cultural diversity teaching and issues of uncertainty: the findings of a qualitative study. BMC Med Educ 7, 8 (2007).

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/Organisation/COLLEGE OF MEDICINE, BIOLOGICAL SCIENCES AND PSYCHOLOGY/MBSP Non-Medical Departments/Neuroscience, Psychology and Behaviour


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