Providing Culturally Safe Maternal and Child Healthcare

Cite as: DeSouza, R. (2016, June 1st). Keynote address-Providing Culturally Safe Maternal and Child Healthcare, Multicultural Health Research to Practice Forum: Early Interventions in Maternal and Child Health, Program, Organised by the Multicultural Health Service, South Eastern Sydney, Local Health District, Australia. Retrieved fromhttp://www.ruthdesouza.com/2016/06/11/cultural-safety-in-maternity/

 

Image from the film, the Namesake
Image from the film, the Namesake

A paragraph haunts me in The Namesake, Jhumpa Lahiri’s fictional account of the Indian immigrant experience. Ashoke and Ashima Ganguli migrate from Calcutta to Cambridge, Massachusetts after their arranged wedding. While pregnant, Ashima reflects:

Nothing feels normal. it’s not so much the pain which she knows she will survive. It’s the consequence: motherhood in a foreign land. For it was one thing to be pregnant to suffer the queasy mornings in bed, the sleepless nights, the dull throbbing in her back, the countless visits to the bathroom. Throughout the experience, in spite of her growing discomfort, she’s been astonished by her body’s ability to make life, exactly as her and grandmother and all her great grandmothers had done. That it was happening so far from home, unmonitored and unobserved by those she loved, had made it more miraculous still. But she is terrified to raise a child in a country where she is related to no one, where she knows so little, where life seems so tentative and spare. The Namesake, Jhumpa Lahiri

Ashima’s account beautifully captures the universality of the physical, embodied changes of maternity, the swelling, the nausea and other changes. But what Lahiri poignantly conveys is the singular emotional and cultural upheaval of these changes, the losses they give rise to. The absence of loving, knowledgeable, nurturing witnesses, the absence of a soft place to fall.

Arrival of baby girl in Prato, Tuscany. Credit DeSouza (2006).
Arrival of baby girl in Prato, Tuscany. Credit DeSouza (2006).

In 1994 I worked on a post-natal ward where I was struck by the limits of universality and how treating everybody the same was problematic. For example, ostensibly beneficial practices like the routine administration of an icepack for soothing the perineum postnatally, or the imperative to mobilise quickly or to “room in” have potentially damaging effects on women whose knowledge frameworks differed from the dominant Pakeha culture of healthcare. These practices combined with a system designed for an imagined white middle class user, where professionals had knowledge deficits and monocultural and assimilatory attitudes, led to unsafe practices such as using family members and children as interpreters (my horror when a boy child was asked to ask his mother about the amount of lochia on her pad). The sanctity of birth, requiring the special, nurturing treatment of new mothers and a welcome from a community was superseded by the factory culture of maximum efficiency. Not all mothers were created equal, not young mothers, not older mothers, not single mothers, not substance using mothers, not indigenous mothers, not culturally different mothers. The sense that I was a cog in a big machine that was inattentive to the needs of “other” mothers led me to critique the effectiveness of cultural safety in the curriculum. How was it possible that a powerful indigenous pedagogical tool for addressing health inequity was not evident in clinical practice?

Photo of me as a staff nurse back in the day.
Photo of me as a staff nurse back in the day.

Leaving the post-natal ward, I took up a role helping to develop a new maternal mental health service in Auckland. There too I began to question the limitations of our model of care which privileged talking therapies rather than providing practical help and support. I was also staggered at the time at the raced and classed profile of our clients who were predominantly white middle class career women. Interestingly, the longer I was involved in the service the greater the number of ethnic women accessed the service. For my Master’s thesis, I interviewed Goan women about their maternity experiences in New Zealand, where the importance of social support and rituals in the perinatal period was noted by participants.

As much as it was important to register and legitimate cultural difference, I was also aware of the importance of not falling into the cultural awareness chasm. As Gregory Philips notes in his stunning PhD, it was assumed that through teaching about other cultures, needs would be better understood as “complex, equal and valid” (Philips, 2015). However, it didn’t challenge privilege, class and power. As Joan Scott points out:

There is nothing wrong, on the face of it, with teaching individuals about how to behave decently in relation to others and about how to empathize with each other’s pain. The problem is that difficult analyses of how history and social standing, privilege, and subordination are involved in personal behavior entirely drop out (Scott, 1992, p.9).

The problem with culturalism is that the notion of “learning about” groups of people with a common ethnicity assumes that groups of people are homogenous, unchanging and can be known. Their cultural differences are then viewed as the problem, juxtaposed against an implicit dominant white middle class cultural norm. This became evident in my PhD analysis of interviews with Korean mothers who’d birthed in New Zealand. In Australia and the US, cultural competence has superseded cultural awareness as a mechanism for correcting the limitations of universalism, by drawing attention to organisational and systemic mechanisms that can be measured but as a strategy for individual and interpersonal action, several authors draw attention to competence as being part of the “problem”:

The concept of multicultural competence is flawed… I question the notion that one could become “competent” at the culture of another. I would instead propose a model in which maintaining an awareness of one’s lack of competence is the goal rather than the establishment of competence. With “lack of competence” as the focus, a different view of practicing across cultures emerges. The client is the “expert” and the clinician is in a position of seeking knowledge and trying to understand what life is like for the client. There is no thought of competence—instead one thinks of gaining understanding (always partial) of a phenomenon that is evolving and changing (Dean, 2001, p.624).

In Wellness for all: the possibilities of cultural safety and cultural competence in New Zealand, I advocated for a combination of cultural competence and cultural safety. Cultural safety was developed by Indigenous nurses in Aotearoa New Zealand as a mechanism for considering and equalizing power relationships between client and practitioner. It is an ethical framework for practice derived from postcolonial and critical theory. Cultural safety proposes that practitioners reflect on how their status as culture bearers impacts on care, with care being deemed culturally safe by the consumer or recipient of care. In my PhD I wrote about the inadequacy of the liberal foundations of nursing and midwifery discourses for meeting the health needs of diverse maternal groups. My thesis advocated for the extension of the theory and practice of cultural safety to critique nursing’s Anglo-European knowledge base in order to extend the discipline’s intellectual and political mandate with the aim of providing effective support to diverse groups of mothers. In Australia, cultural responsiveness, cultural security and cultural respect are also used, you can read more about this on my post on Minding the Gap.

So let’s look at culturally safe maternity care. My experience as a clinician and researcher reveal a gap between how birth is viewed. In contemporary settler nations like New Zealand, midwifery discourses position birth as natural and the maternal subject as physically capable of caring for her baby from the moment it is born, requiring minimal intervention and protection. The maternal body is represented as strong and capable for taking on the tasks of motherhood. In contrast, many cultures view birth as a process that makes the body vulnerable, requiring careful surveillance and monitoring and a period of rest and nurturing before the new mother can take on new or additional responsibilities. The maternal body is seen as a body at risk (Mahjouri, 2008), and vulnerable requiring special care through rituals and support. Therefore, practices based on a dominant discourse of birth as a normal physiological event and neoliberal discourses of productive subjectivity create a gap between what migrant  women expect in the care they expect from maternal services. These practices also constitute modes of governing which are intended to be empowering and normalizing, but are experienced  as disempowering because they don’t take into account other views of birth. Consequently there is no recognition on the part of maternity services that for a short time, there is a temporary role change, where the new mother transitions into a caregiver by being cared for. This social transition where the mother is mothered is sanctioned in order to safeguard the new mother, a demonstration to value and protect both future capacity for mothering and long term well being, in contrast with dominant discourses of responsibilisation and intensive motherhood. Thus, instead of a few days of celebration or a baby shower, extended post-partum practices are enacted which can include the following (Note that these will vary depending on in group differences, urbanisation, working mothers, migration):

  • Organised support- where family members (eg mother, mother-in-law, and other female relatives) care for the new mother and infant. Other women may also be involved eg birth attendants.
  • Rest period and restricted practices- where women have a prescribed rest periods of between 21 days and five weeks, sometimes called “Doing the month”. Activities including sexual activity, physical and intellectual work are reduced.
  • Diet- Special foods are prepared that promote healing/restore health or have a rebalancing function for example because the postpartum period is seen as a time when the body is cold, hot food (protein rich) chicken soup, ginger and seaweed, milk, ghee, nuts, jaggery might be consumed. Special soups and tonics with a cleansing or activating function are consumed eg to help the body expel lochia, to increase breastmilk. These foods might be consumed at different stages of the perinatal period and some food might be prohibited while breastfeeding.
  • Hygiene and warmth- particular practices might be adhered to including purification/bathing practices eg warm baths, immersion. Others might include not washing hair.
  • Infant care and breastfeeding- Diverse beliefs about colostrum, other members of family may take more responsibility while mother recovers and has a temporarily peripheral role. Breastfeeding instigation and duration may differ.
  • Other practices include: binding, infant massage, maternal massage, care of the placenta.

If women are confronted with an unfamiliar health system with little support and understanding, they can experience stress, insecurity, loneliness, isolation, powerlessness, hopelessness. This combined with communication gaps and isolation, poor information provision, different norms, feeling misunderstood and feeling stigmatized. What could be a special time is perceived as a lack of care. Fortunately in Australia there are some excellent resources, for example this research based chapter on Cultural dimensions of pregnancy, birth and post-natal care produced by Victoria Team, Katie Vasey and Lenore Manderson, proposes useful questions for perinatal assessment which I have summarised below:

  • Are you comfortable with both male and female health care providers?
  • Are there any cultural practices that we need to be aware of in caring for you during your pregnancy, giving birth and postnatal period? – For example, requirements with the placenta, female circumcision or infant feeding method.
  • In your culture, do fathers usually attend births? Does your partner want to attend the birth of his child? If not, is there another close family member you would like to be present? Would you like us to speak to them about your care?
  • Are there any foods that are appropriate or inappropriate for you according to your religion or customs during pregnancy, birth and the postpartum period?
  • Are there any beliefs or customs prohibiting physical activity during pregnancy, birth and the postpartum period? Do you plan to observe these? – For example, a confinement period.
  • What is the culturally acceptable way for you to express pain during childbirth? – For example, screaming or trying to keep silent.
  • Are there any precautions with infant care?
  • How many visitors do you expect while you are in the hospital?
  • Do you have anyone in your family or community who can help you in practical ways when you get home?

Negotiating between cultural practices, values and norms, religious beliefs and views, beliefs about perinatal care is a starting point. It is also important to consider language proficiency, health literacy, quality of written materials, and level of acculturation. For further information on health literacy see the Centre for Culture, Ethnicity & Health (CEH) resources including: What is health literacy?, Social determinants of health and health literacy.  Using professional interpreters improves communication, clinical outcomes, patient satisfaction and quality of care, and reduces medical testing, errors, costs and risk of hospitalisation. Lack of appropriate interpreter service use is associated with adverse health outcomes. Centre for Culture,Ethnicity & Health (CEH) has excellent resources in this regard: Interpreters: an introduction, Assessing the need for an interpreter, Booking and briefing an interpreter, Communicating via an interpreter, Debriefing with an interpreter, Developing a comprehensive language services response, Language services guide Managing bilingual staffPlanning for translation, Recruiting bilingual staff.

Assessment should also consider:

  • Genetics and pregnancy: women’s age, parity, planning and acceptance of pregnancy, pregnancy related health behaviour and perceived health during pregnancy. 
  • Migration: women’s knowledge of/familiarity with the prenatal care services/system, experiences and expectations with prenatal care use in their country of origin, pregnancy status on arrival in the new industrialized western country.
  • Culture: women’s cultural practices, values and norms, acculturation, religious beliefs and views, language proficiency, beliefs about pregnancy and prenatal care.
  • Position in the host country: women’s education level, women’s pregnancy-related knowledge, household arrangement, financial resources and income.
  • Social network: size and degree of contact with social network, information and support from social network.
  • Accessibility: transport, opening hours, booking appointments, direct and indirect discrimination by the prenatal care providers.
  • Expertise: prenatal care tailored to patients’ needs and preferences.
  • Treatment and communication: communication from prenatal care providers to women, personal treatment of women by prenatal care providers, availability of health promotion/information material, use of alternative means of communication.
  • Professionally defined need: referral by general practitioners and other healthcare providers to prenatal care providers

A review by Small, Roth et al., (2014) found that what immigrant and non-immigrant women want from maternity care is similar: safe, high quality, attentive and individualised care, with adequate information and support. Generally immigrant women were less positive about care than non-immigrant women, in part due to communication issues, lack of familiarity with care systems, perceptions of discriminatory care which was not kind or respectful. The challenge for health systems is to address the barriers immigrant women face by improving communication, increasing women’s understanding of care provision and reducing discrimination. Clinical skills including—introspection, self-awareness, respectful questioning, attentive listening, curiosity, interest, and caring.

Also:

  • Facilitating trust, control
  • Delivering quality, safe care, communicating, being caring, providing choices
  • Facilitating access to interpreters and choice of gender of care provider,
  • Considering cultural practices, preferences and needs/different expectations for care
  • Engendering positive interactions, being empathetic, kind, caring and supportive.
  • Taking concerns seriously
  • Preserving dignity and privacy
  • Seeing a person both as an individual, a family member and a community member
  • Developing composure managing verbal and non-verbal expressions of disgust and surprise
  • Paradoxical combination of two ideas— being “informed” and “not knowing” simultaneously.

In that sense, our knowledge is always partial and we are always operating from a position of incompletion or lack of competence. Our goal is not so much to achieve competence but to participate in the ongoing processes of seeking understanding and building relationships. This understanding needs to be directed toward ourselves and not just our clients. As we question ourselves we gradually wear away our own resistance and bias. It is not that we need to agree with our clients’ practices and beliefs; we need to understand them and under-stand the contexts and history in which they develop (Dean, 2001, p.628).

Conclusion

In this presentation I have invited you to examine your own values and beliefs about the perinatal period and how they might impact on the care you might provide. I have asked you to consider both the similarities and differences between how women from culturally diverse communities experience maternity and those from the dominant culture. Together, we have scrutinised a range of strategies for enhancing trust, engagement and perinatal outcomes for all women. Drawing on my own clinical practice and research, I have asked you to consider an alternative conceptualisation of the maternal body when caring for some women, that is the maternal body as vulnerable, which requires a period of rest and nurturing. This framing requires a temporary role change for the new mother to transition into being a caregiver, by being cared for, so that her future capacity for mothering and long term well being are enhanced. I have asked you to reflect on how supposedly empowering practices can be experienced as disempowering because they don’t take into account this view of birth. In the context of differing conceptualisations of birth and the maternal body I have drawn special attention to: negotiating between health beliefs; having cultural humility; considering ways in which your own knowledge is always partial; and recommended a range of resources that can be utilised to ensure positive outcomes for women and their families. As health services in Australia grapple with changing societal demographics including cultural diversity, changing consumer demands and expectations; resource constraints; the limitations in traditional health care delivery; greater emphasis on transparency, accountability, evidence- based practice (EBP) and clinical governance (Davidson et al., 2006), questions of how to provide effective universal health care can be enhanced by considering how differing views can be incorporated as they hold potential benefits for all.

Selected references

  • Boerleider, A. W., Wiegers, T. A., Manniën, J., Francke, A. L., & Devillé, W. L. (2013). Factors affecting the use of prenatal care by non-western women in industrialized western countries: A systematic review. BMC Pregnancy and Childbirth, 13(1), 8.
  • Dennis, C. L., Fung, K., Grigoriadis, S., Robinson, G. E., Romans, S., & Ross, L. (2007). Traditional postpartum practices and rituals: A qualitative systematic review. Women’s Health (London, England), 3(4), 487-502. doi:10.2217/17455057.3.4.487.
  • Mander, S., & Miller, Y. D. (2016). Perceived safety, quality and cultural competency of maternity care for culturally and linguistically diverse women in queensland. Journal of Racial and Ethnic Health Disparities, 3(1), 83-98. doi:10.1007/s40615-015-0118.
  • Small, R., Roth, C., Raval, M., Shafiei, T., Korfker, D., Heaman, M. Gagnon, A. (2014). Immigrant and non-immigrant women’s experiences of maternity care: A systematic and comparative review of studies in five countries. BMC Pregnancy and Childbirth, 14(1).

Additional web resources