What Is Cultural Humility, and How Does It Support Health Literacy?

By Annaleise Tripp, MPH Candidate

Ethnic mother with daughter having a discussion with a health care professional on her daughters care.

Do you ever think about what makes people different and stand out from each other? You might think about someone’s haircut or outfit, the language they speak, their accent, or maybe where they live and work. These can all be reflections of someone’s cultural background.
Our lives are shaped by culture. Culture refers to shared beliefs, values, and ideas, but also refers to shared racial or ethnic backgrounds, languages and communication, geographic locations, or traditions and customs. Culture plays a significant role in how people grow and live, and it plays a role in health.
Many in the healthcare field are moving away from the term cultural competence and are beginning to use cultural humility instead. What is cultural humility? It’s accepting and recognizing that you do not know everything about the culture — including the beliefs, values, and ideas — of the person in front of you, as well as being open to learning from people with different backgrounds. Cultural humility involves lifelong learning, self-reflection, and self-critique — and being comfortable with not knowing.

How Does Culture Affect Health and Healthcare?

Culture shapes how people think about health and healthcare, including how they gain meaning through information; how they understand the diagnoses and treatments they are presented with; and even what they believe can be discussed regarding the body, health, and illness. For example, people within certain cultures may rely on traditional medicine and traditional knowledge for healing and treatment, while others may be more accepting of the healthcare system in the United States. If patients’ cultural norms do not align with the dominant values of the healthcare system they’re interacting with, they may have difficulties navigating the system, accessing resources, and communicating with providers — even if they have adequate reading, writing, language, and numeracy skills.  
Cultural humility can make patients feel more comfortable when discussing healthcare with providers. When providers are open to learning more about their patients and their backgrounds, it can lead to better health outcomes for the patients.

How Are Cultural Humility and Health Literacy Connected?

Health literacy can be separated into two distinct categories: personal health literacy and organizational health literacy. Personal health literacy refers to how well individuals can access, comprehend, and apply health-related information and services to make informed decisions and actions for themselves and others. Organizational health literacy is the degree to which organizations equitably enable individuals to find, understand, and use information and services to inform health-related decisions and actions for themselves and others. 
Prioritizing health literacy can help build trust, which is an important aspect of patients’ willingness to engage in care and change behaviors to improve personal health. It also advances health equity by promoting inclusiveness and helping people understand the health information that is presented to them.
Because so many cultural backgrounds are represented in the United States and cross-cultural communication often occurs in healthcare settings, cultural humility plays an important role in health literacy. Patients and providers do not always share cultural backgrounds, so providers need cultural humility to learn about patients’ backgrounds to be able to treat them in the best way possible. Further, health professionals belong to their own culture, meaning they share a language that much of the general population does not understand. The complex language commonly used in health settings can hinder their patients’ understanding of important information.  

How can providers ensure we’re meeting patients with both health literacy and cultural humility in mind?

Information and communication should be focused on the target audience to ensure that the largest number of people are able to understand the information they are receiving. There are many ways to present and communicate information to people. Translation and interpretation are effective ways to bridge language barriers, though caution must be taken when translating materials since not every language has the same words or meanings. Using a standard reading level for printed materials is another effective way to increase the amount of people reading and understanding materials. In most cases, health materials should be offered at fourth- through sixth-grade reading levels, but this can vary depending on the population’s geographic location.

Now What?

When thinking of health literacy and cultural humility in your own life, here are some questions that you can ask yourself:
  • In your own life, how does health literacy affect you?
  • How can you use cultural humility in your personal and professional life?
  • How confident are you in understanding medical information presented to you at a doctor’s appointment?
  • Are you able to get information written or translated to the language you speak?
  • Is it possible for you to use a different language in your work to make health information more understandable?

About the Author


Annaleise Tripp is working towards her Master of Public Health degree, focusing on health promotion, at Grand Valley State University, with an anticipated graduation in April 2024. She earned her bachelor’s degree in anthropology from Michigan State University, with dual minors in health promotion and environment and health. Her interests in public health encompass community and population health, addressing health disparities, facilitating connections to resources, and promoting health literacy. A proud Michigan native from Traverse City, she recently completed her practicum as the community health intern with the Nottawaseppi Huron Band of the Potawatomi, gaining valuable experience in a community health setting.


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