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SAMJ: South African Medical Journal

versión On-line ISSN 2078-5135
versión impresa ISSN 0256-9574

SAMJ, S. Afr. med. j. vol.101 no.2 Cape Town feb. 2011




Cultural safety and family medicine in Africa



To the Editor: It took 3 continents and 11 years post-qualification for me to realise that Western medicine's approach to improving health care in Africa may be flawed. The realisation occurred as a result of reading Belfrage's experiences of working within the Aborigine community in terra nullius (Australia's vast inhabited interior) and seeing how, as a doctor of European descent, she and her culture, and the local Aborigines (Alyawarr) and their culture, perceived the world in fundamentally different ways.1

I was born in Europe, raised in southern Africa where I studied and worked, decided to further my education abroad, and now reside in Melbourne, Australia. My aim has always been to return to Africa and implement the skills I now have.

Family medicine in Africa differs from that in Europe in that it is generally regarded as not the first point of care, usually takes place in a district or teaching hospital, and often requires considerable surgical expertise in a resource-poor environment. However, both approaches aim to provide comprehensive and compassionate generalist services within a community context.

Western-trained doctors believe in the scientific approach and disbelieve the supernatural or the anecdotal. We believe in the germ theory of many diseases. A doctor's work is linear - history, examination, investigation, diagnosis, treatment. Doctors expect patients to believe and share their world view and act on their advice.

'Cultural safety' is quite different for eachapproach. This concept was developed in the 1980s in New Zealand in response to the indigenous Maori people's discontent with nursing care. Maori nursing students and the work of I M Ramsden supported 'cultural safety', which upheld political ideas of self-determination and de-colonisation of Maori people;2 it goes beyond ethnocultural practices, political views or being culturally aware or sensitive. Ramsden and others view these latter terms as a learning process continuum: cultural awareness is the starting point involving the understanding of differences; cultural sensitivity is intermediate where self-exploration begins; and cultural safety is the final outcome.

Rather than emphasising learning about other peoples' diverse cultures, cultural safety requires practitioners to identify their own values, beliefs and assumptions that guide their thinking and actions, and then to engage in practice that reflects an understanding and respect for what the patient and family believe is important to healing, health and well-being.3 Health practitioners cannot assume that they provide culturally safe care, as only the recipient of care can assess the level of risk or safety that they experience. Cultural safety questions the dictum of 'treating everyone the same' regardless of age, ethnicity or gender. A central tenet of cultural safety is that people receiving the care decide what is culturally safe or unsafe, enabling them to believe that the health care is connected to their lives. They are involved and have choices that are not primarily part of someone else's agenda. Cultural safety is often more concerned with not disempowering people than with empowering them.

Whether family medicine in Africa should adopt this concept in clinical care and teaching needs to be explored. Culturally safe, or appropriate, programmes enhance personal empowerment, so promoting more effective health care service delivery for African people.


Oliver van Hecke

Department of General Practice
Monash University
Melbourne, Australia


1. Belfrage M. Why 'culturally safe' health care. MJA 2007;186(10):537-538.         [ Links ]

2. Ramsden, IH. Cultural Safety in Nursing Education in Aotearoa. Presentation at the Year of Indigenous Peoples Conference, Brisbane, 1992.         [ Links ]

3. Smye V, Rameka M, Willis E. Indigenous health care: Advances in nursing practice. Contemporary Nurse: A Journal for the Australian Nursing Profession 2006;22(2):142-154.         [ Links ]

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