October 10, 2022

Cultivating Cultural Humility

by Amy Ly-Ha, PharmD, PGY1 Community Pharmacy Practice Resident, University of Mississippi School of Pharmacy

Growing up in the Vietnamese culture, whenever I had a minor illness, my parents engaged in the practice of cạo gió, also known as coining. The intent of the practice is to dispel negative energy from a sick individual.  Coining involves spreading medicated oil onto the skin and rubbing a coin over this area until a red abrasion mark forms. To those who are unfamiliar with the practice, these marks may look frightening and can be mistaken as abuse. As a child, I did not pay much attention to these marks on my body. Once, I came home from school feeling feverish. My mother performed coining and brought me to the doctor’s office the next day. Upon conducting a physical examination, the physician noticed the red stripes on my back. Rather than making accusations of abuse, the physician skillfully interviewed my mother and listened to her explanation. Looking back, I now recognize the significance of this encounter. Not only did the physician display a willingness to listen to my parents, but she also demonstrated an openness to my family’s cultural traditions. This physician modeled cultural humility, a concept that I believe all healthcare professionals should possess to create an environment conducive to optimal patient care.

The widespread implementation of cultural diversity training in various health professions education aligns with the growing diversity of our patient populations. There are many aspects to cultural diversity training. Commonly taught in health professions degree programs today, cultural competency embodies the ability to provide care to people with diverse values, beliefs, and behaviors.1 Cultural competency requires several skills, including recognizing the unique needs of every patient, realizing that culture impacts health beliefs, and respecting cultural differences. A culturally competent healthcare professional is able to negotiate and restructure therapeutic plans in response to a patient’s cultural beliefs and behaviors.2 And while cultural diversity training is clearly important, health professionals must also demonstrate cultural humility.

Cultural humility, a term first coined in 1988, is a lifelong process of ongoing self-reflection and self-critique.3 It emphasizes awareness of one’s possible biases and a willingness to be taught by patients. Unlike cultural competency, the goal of cultural humility involves “relinquish[ing] a provider’s role as a cultural expert and adopt[ing] patient-centered interviewing to create a mutual therapeutic alliance.”2 One barrier to teaching cultural humility includes the difficulty of assessing students’ growth in this area. Despite this, I recommend that educators implement the following elements to foster cultural humility in their students.

Element 1: Develop Culturally Relevant Curricula

A culturally relevant curriculum incorporates aspects of culture throughout a curriculum, thus valuing various cultures and encouraging intercultural understanding.4 Introducing students to different cultures throughout their education, in and outside the classroom, enables students to learn how to navigate through diversity. By embedding cultural diversity training at strategic times throughout a curriculum, educators can include reflective exercises intended to build cultural humility. 

When developing and implementing a culturally relevant curriculum, one must be aware of the potential to introduce unconscious bias in lessons and assessments. For example, a recently published research study investigated the presence of unconscious bias in student assessments at a Doctor of Pharmacy program.5 Assessing questions from the academic year of 2018 to 2019 for first-, second-, and third-year pharmacy classes, the investigators examined 3,621 questions. Only a small fraction of these questions referenced race (N=40); however, race was relevant to only two questions. The study also found that specific races were more often associated with specific health conditions. For example, in the analyzed set, the researchers found that all questions related to human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) and sexually transmitted infections (STIs) were associated with African-Americans. Thus, as this study documents, the routine use of race as a descriptor in instances where it lacks significance may propagate racial bias.5 Therefore, providing culturally relevant curricula requires educators to acknowledge their own biases, mitigate them, and display intentionality as they develop and implement instructional materials.

Element 2: Create Opportunities for Cultural Socialization

Cultural socialization is the process in which individuals learn about the customs and values of other cultures. Within the classroom, instructors can create simulations that foster cultural humility. For example, scenarios that prompt students to confront challenging situations and recognize their own biases can help facilitate cultural humility. Furthermore, instructors can create discussion boards to encourage students to share their cultural practices, values, and beliefs.

Immersive experiences outside of the classroom can reinforce direct instruction. These opportunities include community outreach events, introductory and advanced practice-based experiences, and international service trips. Placing students in these environments encourages students to go outside their comfort zone and strengthen their confidence. By creating and introducing experiences for cultural socialization, educators can broaden their students’ perspectives.

Element 3: Promote the Practice of Self-Reflection

The emphasis on introspection sets cultural humility apart from cultural competency. Instructors should encourage students to regularly reflect on and learn from their experiences. Activities that promote reflective practices include journaling and meditation. Online resources like the Implicit Association Tests can also serve as tools to help students recognize their unconscious biases.6 By encouraging reflection and providing opportunities to talk about experiences, educators are developing the habits of mind needed for learners to continue this practice throughout their careers.

Implementing the three elements can promote cultural humility within students. Fostering cultural humility and incorporating cultural competency training in health professions education is critical to achieving accessible and comprehensive healthcare for all.



  1. American Hospital Association [Internet]. Becoming a Culturally Competent Health Care Organization. AHA; 2016 Jun [cited 2022 Sep 16].
  2. Rockich-Winston N, Wyatt TR. The Case for Culturally Responsive Teaching in Pharmacy Curricula. Am J Pharm Educ 2019; 83(8): Article 7425.
  3. Tervalon M, Murray-García J. Cultural Humility Versus Cultural Competence: A Critical Distinction in Defining Physician Training Outcomes in Multicultural Education. J Health Care Poor Underserved 1998; 9(2):117-25.
  4. International Bureau of Education [Internet]. Culturally Responsive Curriculum; [cited 2022 Sep 16].
  5. Rizzolo D, Kalabalik-Hoganson J, Sandifer C, Lowy N. Focusing on Cultural Humility in Pharmacy Assessment Tools. Curr Pharm Teach Learn 2022;14(6):747-50.
  6. Project Implicit [Internet]. Select a Test; [cited 2022 Sep 30].