Culture Matters


The World Health Organization (WHO) has identified the systemic neglect of culture as the single, greatest, barrier to the advancement of the highest standard of health worldwide. Health is more than the absence of disease. It is a state of wellbeing that allows people to contribute their full, creative potential to the communities they love. From a cultural perspective, community health is community wealth.

Culture is foundational to hope, trust, a sense of belonging, and purpose in life. Purpose is the “why” of both people and organizations. Purpose is what gives meaning to the things we do. Research published by National Academy of Sciences found that people with greater senses of purpose in life are even more likely to embrace preventive healthcare.

Purpose, however, must be aligned with culture or it becomes a goal without a plan. Putting it another way, purpose is about where your journey is taking you. Culture is the combination of values and habits that will get you there.

Cultures of all kinds -- religious or ethnic, professional or political, heritage or identity -- have been sidelined and misunderstood by both medical professionals and society as a whole. It doesn’t have to be this way.

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Culture is like a garden. It can be designed and cultivated to produce many different types of harvests. My professional mission is to advance the important role of culture, as the foundation for innovation in population health.  Population health includes public health and wellness -- as defined by geographic regions, such as states or communities -- but also includes other groups, such as employees of a company, or people who share a heritage (e.g., African American), or an identity (e.g., LGBTQ).

Until now, culture has largely been conceived of as an impediment to health or social change, rather than a central determining feature of it. However, the WHO makes a powerful case to the contrary, showing that culture not only determines health -- for example, through its influence on behaviors such as smoking and unhealthy eating -- but also defines it through different cultural groups' understandings of what it means to be well.

Biomedical approaches to health and wellbeing have contributed to important reductions in mortality and morbidity, but they have yet to adjust to the strong effects of culture on health. For example, had building a culture of hope and trust been key components of America’s approach to mental health, we may not now be facing a crippling economic burden from depression, loneliness and substance use disorder.

 Few people care about disease indicators, such as blood pressure, in the abstract. It is only when indicators are connected, in a recognizable way, to people, and their life goals, that these measurements become significant. Adding “meaning to measure” is where our society’s creatives and storytellers can be leveraged for big impact.