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Intercultural communication training series fosters cultural competency in future physicians

(This story was revised from a version written by Anita Martin in 2007.)

(ATHENS, Ohio – Oct. 11, 2012) The Ohio University Heritage College of Osteopathic Medicine (OU-HCOM) is committed to sharpening the cultural acuity of the college’s diverse student body. Mark Orbe, Ph.D., an expert in cross-cultural medical communication led his first OU-HCOM seminar, called “Physician-Patient Communication in a Multicultural Society,” during winter quarter 2006. For the past seven years OU-HCOM has hosted a professional development seminar for year one and two students.

Culture demand

Every year, Orbe starts each session of his “Professional Development in Cultural Competency” series for OU-HCOM by counting “1 – 2 – 3 …”

“Dumela!” his students shout on cue. The word dumela is a South African greeting that also means “I affirm you, I believe in you, and I see the great potential within you.” Orbe weaves this theme through the CMCE’s certificate program in intercultural communication at OU-HCOM.

As warm and welcoming as this sounds, Orbe’s program is no feel-good affirmation fest. Participants critically examine their own cultural identities, assumptions and biases; learn to implement communication principles and practice negotiating patients’ culturally based beliefs about medical care through simulated interviews.

“This is not cultural sensitivity training. This is about developing strong communication skills so you get the most meaningful, productive exchange out of a 15–20 minute meeting with a patient,” Orbe says.

Dr. Orbe worked closely with OU-HCOM to develop this intercultural communications series. Originally funded by a federal Health and Human Services Center of Excellence grant, the program is has proven so successful that OU-HCOM continued it after the grant funding ended.


Mindful approach

As a biracial, first-generation college student, Orbe was drawn to the cultural aspects of communication. After earning his bachelor’s degree at Ohio University, he returned for a doctorate, also in communication studies, during which time his wife gave birth to their first child at O’Bleness Memorial Hospital. He is currently a Professor of Communication & Diversity in the School of Communication at Western Michigan University where he holds a joint appointment in the Gender and Women’s Studies Program.

“There’s an inextricable relationship between culture and communication,” he says. “I explore ways in which that relationship manifests.”

“Most of us don’t communicate mindfully; we just say what we’re thinking and assume that there’s a shared meaning,” Orbe says. “I teach receiver orientation; a concept that says what’s more important is not what I’m saying, but how you receive it.”

Such cultural tips can be helpful, but it’s impossible to memorize the genetic predispositions, medical practices and social etiquette of every culture. The trick, according to Orbe, is to ask probing questions and cultivate mindfulness.

Investing in connecting

“It’s a significant time commitment, but what you get out of it is well worth the hours you give up,” said Becky Teagarden, D.O. (’09), who as a medical student attended his first seminar. “At medical school you’re so bombarded with the science that you don’t take the time to appreciate how intricately individual each situation is.,” she said after taking the seminar. 

“This is a small time commitment compared to the valuable information that students live with. “OU-HCOM does a great job at training future physicians. Our students will graduate and work in areas that serve diverse populations. Learning how to communicate with patients from different cultural and ethnic backgrounds is critical. Participation in this series will assist our students in becoming more culturally competent physicians.”

Through Orbe’s seminar, students gain new levels of cultural competency and mindful physician-patient communication, but they also deepen their bond with one another.

In past seminars, before bringing the final session to a close, Orbe gathered his students into a circle and tossed a colorful ball of yarn to a young woman across the room. Still holding onto his end of the yarn, he affirmed the humanity of that student, who tosses the yarn to another, and he to another. Soon multi-hued strands, each representing gratitude, admiration or appreciation, crisscrossed into an elaborate network of yarn.

“It is through communication that we establish this web of dumela—of affirmation,” Orbe says. “Even though you didn’t speak to everyone in this room, and despite our many differences—look: we’re all connected.”

Dr. Orbe will give his second workshop in this four part series on Saturday, Oct. 20 from 8:30 a.m. to 12:30 p.m. in Baker University Center multipurpose room 240/242. If you would like to participate please RSVP to Michelle Pendergast at

  Office of Communication
Ohio University Heritage College of Osteopathic Medicine
210 Irvine Hall, Athens, Ohio 45701
Tel: 740-593-2346 FAX: 740-593-0343
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Last updated: 01/28/2016