Diversity & Equality in Health and Care Open Access

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Cultural racism, language prejudice and discrimination in hospital contexts: an Australian study

Megan Jane Johnstone, Olga Kanitsaki AM

This article explores the idea that racial and ethnic disparities in healthcare may be expressive of unacknowledgedpractices of cultural racism. In conducting this exploration, the researchers identify, describe and discuss the practice of language prejudice and discrimination by health service providers, discovered serendipitously in the context of a broader study exploring cultural safety and cultural competency in an Australian healthcare context. The original study involved individual and focus groups interviews with 145 participants recruited from over 17 different organisational and domestichome sites. Participants included health service managers, ethnic liaison officers, qualified health interpreters, cultural trainers/educators, ethnic welfare organisation staff, registered nurses, allied health professionals, and healthcare consumers. Participants self-identified as being from over 27 different ethnocultural and language backgrounds.Analysis of the data revealed that English language proficiency, like skin colour, was used as a social marker to classify, categorise, and negatively evaluate people of non-English speaking backgrounds (NESB) in the contexts studied. Negative evaluations,  in turn, were used to justify the exclusion of NESB people from healthcare relationships and resources. Further data analysis revealed that underpinning the negative attitudes and behaviours in hospital domains concerning people who spoke accented English or who did not speak English proficiently were a dislike of difference, fear of difference, intolerance of difference, fear of competition for scarce healthcare resources, repressed hostility toward difference, and ignorance.Highlighting the implications of language prejudice for the safety and quality care of NESB people, the researchers call for further internationally comparative research and debate on the subject.