Culture holds the key to improving the health of the city's ethnic minorities

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 11 December, 2011, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 11 December, 2011, 12:00am


The number of people from ethnic minorities, especially South Asians, is growing rapidly in Hong Kong and their culture is very different from Chinese lifestyles in terms of religion, beliefs about health, and dietary practice.

Many South Asians can also find themselves in challenging positions because of language barriers and social status, but it is critical that we identify their needs and how they can be best addressed if we are to build a harmonious society.

An individual's lifestyle reflects the complex relationship between their culture and the broader society. But if aspects of that lifestyle, such as physical inactivity and an unwholesome diet, are detrimental to health it will eventually burden the health care system. In the diet of South Asians, especially Indians, milk and butter are traditional ingredients. Butter is commonly used for cooking not only for flavour but also for showing social status, especially when preparing big meals for friends and relatives. Continuing a traditional diet helps preserve ethnic identity, especially among minorities.

There is also a common misconception that fat and greasy food are healthy. In addition, many South Asians are overweight, putting further strain on their cardiovascular health. The health needs of this ethnic group will eventually pose serious challenges to the government if they are not tackled soon.

A healthy diet and regular exercise in daily life are critical to preventing heart disease, stroke, hypertension and diabetes. It's a message that the government and health-related organisations have promoted widely, but cultural differences may have stopped that message getting through, preventing some people from accessing health care.

Also, when individuals feel uncomfortable in a setting because of their cultural background or if their beliefs are not respected, they are reluctant to use the services provided.

Making sure health services are culturally appropriate means more than just having translation services. It's much more important to have health-care providers who are sensitive to cultural differences.

The first step to providing culturally sensitive services to the South Asians living in Hong Kong is to examine their knowledge of cardiovascular health and identify the barriers to accessing primary care services.

Professor Chair Sek-ying, Nethersole School of Nursing, Chinese University of Hong Kong