By Anita Martin
Mark Orbe starts each session of his "Professional Development in Cultural Competency" seminar at Ohio University's College of Osteopathic Medicine by counting "1-2-3..."
"Dumela!" shouts a roomful of first-year medical students, right on cue. "Dumela" is a South African greeting that translates as: "I affirm you, I believe in you, and I see the great potential with you," says Orbe, a professor of communications at Western Michigan University who earned his bachelor's degree and doctorate at Ohio University.
Warm and welcoming as it sounds, this is no feel-good affirmation fest. Participants must critically examine their cultural assumptions and biases, learn communication principles and practice negotiating patients' culturally based beliefs about medical care through simulated interviews.
This Saturday, Orbe will lead the final session for the 2007-08 seminar, during which second-year students who attended last year will train current participants to mentor for future seminars -- a new initiative this year.
"This is not cultural sensitivity training," Orbe says. "This is about getting the most meaningful, productive exchange out of a 15-minute meeting with any patient."
The seminar reflects collaboration among OU-COM's Offices of Student Affairs and Multicultural Affairs as well as growing student interest.
"Our world is changing, and students understand the need to grasp it," says Harold C. Thompson III, OU-COM's director of multicultural affairs. "We want to provide more practice inside and outside of the classroom."
Because it's impossible to memorize medical practices, social etiquette and genetic predispositions of every culture, the trick is to ask probing questions and cultivate mindfulness, Orbe says.
"Most of us just say what we're thinking and assume that there's a shared meaning," he says. "I teach receiver orientation: what's more important is not what I'm saying, but how you receive it."
Orbe led his first OU-COM seminar, "Physician-Patient Communication in a Multicultural Society," during winter quarter 2006. He returned the following fall to launch the training series. About 42 percent of this year's first-year class completed this series -- no small feat considering the seminar's extensive reading list and mandatory weekend sessions, in addition to the students' already rigorous medical education.
"It's a significant time commitment, but what you get out of it is well worth the hours you give up," says Becky Teagarden, a third-year medical student who attended the first seminar and helped coordinate the ongoing program. "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."
Updated at 9:39 a.m. on Wednesday, April 9, to correct a statement about the seminar's funding.