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How to talk with a patient

“Respect for Others”

-Traditional Iñupiaq Value

Health literacy

Chances are you have gone through years and years of rigorous education in order to help people. Still, as a health care provider/community health aide (CHA)/health professional, you can be a better helper by taking health literacy into consideration. Health literacy means the degree to which an individual has the capacity to obtain, communicate, process, and understand basic health information and services to make appropriate health decisions. Read more about Patient Protection and the Affordable Care Act. A few things to be mindful of in communicating with patients is understanding Alaska Native cultures, understanding your patient’s personal values (spiritual, etc.), and listening well. 

Alaska Native culture

Indigenous communities and people live a lifestyle with customs, behaviors, and communication styles that are much different from other groups of people, especially western society. What’s more is that these customs, behaviors, and traditional languages very vastly even among the different cultures in Alaska! Alaska is home to at least 11 cultural groups, and the State of Alaska recognizes 20 Native languages in addition to English. Even though Alaska Native people were the first people of Alaska, they are still a minority in many places. They live in a world where most health care providers, educators, public safety professionals, and government leaders, are not Native. Sometimes, there are cultural misunderstandings. At the end of the day, if you are kind and respectful, chances are your patients likely appreciate your service!  

Communication Styles

Many Alaska Native people communicate in ways that are non-verbal. For example, many Iñupiaq people of Northwest Alaska raise their eyebrows to say, “yes.” If you are in a situation where it seems like someone is ignoring your questions, it might be good to ask yourself, “Is there a different way that they are trying to communicate with me?” Remember, you can always ask! 

In addition, it is good to be aware of the differences in lifestyles and cultural norms between Native and non-Native people. For example, in western society, we live by the clock. Most people work an 9-5 shift. We like working as efficiently as possible, we like fast internet, and everything fast, fast, fast! We must understand that many indigenous people don’t run on time, but rather, they value meaningful connections without regard to time. Often, indigenous people share important points and thoughts through storytelling. Parents and grandparents teach children important life lessons through analogies, stories, songs, and by showing (sometimes, without using words at all). With that, try to understand that even if you have many patients to see in a day, it might take some extra time to connect meaningfully with someone. Also, please know that for some individuals, it might take a while for them to warm up to you, and that’s okay. 

Listening well

Ataa” is an Iñupiaq word many people say. It means “quiet.” In other words, listen. In western society, it is socially acceptable to be talkative. Many of us feel uncomfortable with silence when we are in presence with others. We try to engage people by making small talk. Many enjoy being in presence with others without saying anything at all. If you ask a patient a question and they don’t respond, give a few moments for them to think about the question you asked. You might also consider using different words or asking the question in a different way. Using lay language is important in communicating effectively with patients, especially elders and youth!

Racial discrimination and Historical Trauma

As minority people, Alaska Native people have historically endured racial discrimination and historical trauma. Today, there are still racial stereotypes for being Alaska Native. You can read more about historical trauma in the Family page. Also, watch this Youtube vid to learn about the impact of microaggressions on people who belong to a racial minority group

This page was written by past IKM Staff member Jaclynne (Iñupiaq). Jaclynne is Inupiaq, which is only one culture in Alaska. She does not speak on behalf of all Alaska Native people but simply shares her views and interest around public health communications.

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