Here’s a great job title of the future: Vice President of Cultural Competence, the position Virginia Tong holds at the Lutheran Medical Center in Sunset Park, Brooklyn. In her New York Times column yesterday, Anemona Hartocollis recounts how Tong has helped the hospital raise its cultural awareness. She alerted management to the Chinese superstition that “4” is an unlucky number, much like “13” in the U.S., prompting them to replace some of the “4s” in hospital room numbers with “8s,” a number that’s seen as bringing good fortune. The hospital now serves hot water and tea instead of cold water to Chinese patients — cold drinks are considered unsuitable for illness — and offers beef soup with bones to patients whose blood has been taken, as drawing blood is thought to make the body unbalanced.
Lutheran’s efforts are more than just a nod at cultural sensitivity; they’re an effort to truly compete with surrounding hospitals to court Chinese patients. All employees — right down to the IT types — have to undergo training in cultural sensitivity. In addition to Tong, the hospital has hired a medical anthropologist and a Chinese cook, Yan Kam Cheung, who shops at Chinese markets and serves congee, a rice porridge, to patients six days a week (but not on Sundays, which is reserved for dumplings). The cultural sensitivity efforts may be helping Lutheran to increase its share of Chinese customers, but it’s also having an unintended benefit that could increase another portion of their market share. Pregnant women at the hospital — whether on the Chinese ward or not — crave Mr. Cheung’s cooking. Who knows, maybe cultural sensitivity will make the hospital a destination for new moms, too.