Speech by Mr. Micheál Martin TD – Meeting The Challenges Of Cultural Diversity In The Irish Healthcare Sector


It gives me great pleasure to accept the invitation to address this conference on “Meeting the Challenges of Cultural Diversity in the Irish Healthcare Sector” which is being organised by the Irish Health Services Management Institute in partnership with the National Consultative Committee on Racism and Interculturalism. The conference provides an important opportunity to develop our knowledge and understanding of the issues surrounding cultural diversity in the health sector from the twin perspectives of patients and staff.

Culturally Diverse Society

Cultural diversity has over recent years become an increasingly visible aspect of Irish society bringing with it both opportunities and challenges. It holds out great possibilities for the enrichment of all who live in Ireland but it also challenges us to adapt creatively to the changes required to realise this potential and to ensure that the experience is a positive one for all concerned but particularly for those in the minority ethnic groups. In the last number of years in particular, the focus has tended to be on people coming to this country either as refugees, asylum seekers or economic migrants. Government figures estimate that as many as 340,000 immigrants are expected in the next six years.

However ethnic and cultural diversity are not new phenomena in Ireland. Travellers have a long history as an indigenous minority group in Ireland with a strong culture and identity of their own. The changing experience and dynamics of their relationship with the wider society and its institutions over time can, I think, provide some valuable lessons for us as we seek to address the more numerous and complex issues of cultural diversity which have arisen for us in the last decade.

Cultural Diversity in the Health Sector

Turning more specifically to the health sector which is the focus of this conference, culture and identity have particular relevance to health service policy and provision in that

  • they shape people’s definition of health, perception of illness and responses to illness
  • they influence the manner in which people take up health services
  • they challenge health policy and provision to be accessible and culturally appropriate in an effort to achieve equitable health status outcomes.
  • they pose challenges in relation to the increasing number of non-national health service workers which we are proactively bringing into our system.

Acknowledging Difference

The first requirement is that we in the health service acknowledge cultural diversity and the differences in behaviours and in the less obvious areas of values and beliefs that this often implies. Only by acknowledging these differences in a respectful way and informing ourselves of them can we address them. Our equality legislation – The Employment Equality Act, 1998 and the Equal Status Act, 2000 – prohibits discrimination on nine grounds including race and membership of the Traveller community. The Equal Status Act prohibits discrimination on an individual basis in relation to the nine grounds while for groups it provides for the promotion of equality of opportunity. The Act applies to the provision of services including health services.

Focus on the Patient

I will speak first about cultural diversity in relation to the patient. In this respect it is worth mentioning that the recognition of cultural diversity and appropriate responses to it were issues which were strongly emphasised in the public consultation process which we held earlier this year in the context of developing National Anti-Poverty targets for the health sector and also our new national health strategy.

Awareness Training for Staff

Awareness and sensitivity training for staff is a key requirement for adapting to a culturally diverse patient population. The focus of this training should be the development of the knowledge and skills to provide services sensitive to cultural diversity. Such training can often be most effectively delivered in partnership with members of the minority groups themselves. I am aware that the Traveller community, for example, is involved in in-service training for health care workers. I am also aware that the National Consultative Committee on Racism and Interculturalism has been involved in training with the Eastern Regional Health Authority. We need to have more such initiatives. A step beyond the sensitivity training for existing staff is the training of members of the minority communities themselves as workers in our health services. Again the Traveller community has set an example in this area with its Primary Health Care Project for Travellers.

Primary Health Care for Travellers

The Primary Health Care for Travellers Project was established in 1994 as a joint partnership initiative with the Eastern Health Board and Pavee Point, with ongoing technical assistance being provided from the Department of Community Health and General Practice, Trinity College, Dublin. This project was the first of its kind in the country and has facilitated

  • significant consultation between service providers and the Traveller community,
  • greater information collection and sharing and
  • improved access and utilisation of services

The project included a training course which concentrated on skills development, capacity building and the empowerment of Travellers. This confidence and skill allowed the Community Health Workers to go out and conduct a baseline survey to identify and articulate Travellers’ health needs. This was the first time that Travellers were involved in this process; in the past their needs were assumed. The results of the survey were fed back to the community and they prioritised their needs and suggested changes to the health services which would facilitate their access and utilisation.

Ongoing monitoring and data collection demonstrates a big improvement in levels of satisfaction and uptake and ulitisation of health services by Travellers in the pilot area. This Primary Health Care for Travellers initiative is being replicated in three other areas around the country and funding has been approved for a further 9 new projects. This pilot project was the recipient of a WHO 50th anniversary commemorative award in 1998. The project is developing as a model of good practice which could inspire further initiatives of this type for other minority groups.

Information and Health Promotion

Access to information has been identified in numerous consultative processes as a key factor in enabling people to take a proactive approach to managing their own health and that of their families and in facilitating their access to health services. Honouring our commitment to equity in these areas requires that information is provided in culturally appropriate formats. The National Health Promotion Strategy 2000-2005, for example, recognises that there exists within our society many groups with different requirements which need to be identified and accommodated when planning and implementing health promotion interventions. These groups include Travellers, refugees and asylum seekers, people with intellectual, physical or sensory disability and the gay and lesbian community. The Strategy acknowledges the challenge involved in being sensitive to the potential differences in patterns of poor health among these different groups. The Strategic aim is to promote the physical, mental and social well-being of individuals from these groups. The objective of the Strategy on these issues are:

  • to initiate research into the health and lifestyle behaviour of these groups within the population;
  • to prioritise health promotion programmes,
  • to work in partnership with these groups to develop and adapt health promotion programmes to meet their individual needs.

Targeting and Mainstreaming

While our long term aim may be to mainstream responses so that our health services is truly multicultural, we must recognise the need at this point in time for very specific focused responses particularly for groups with poor health status such as Travellers and also for refugees and asylum seekers. In the case of refugees and asylum seekers examples of targeted services are screening for communicable diseases – offered on a voluntary basis – and psychological support services for those who have suffered trauma before coming here. The two approaches of targeting and mainstreaming are not mutually exclusive. A combination of both is required at this point in time but the balance between them must be kept under constant review in the light of changing needs.

Data and Research

A major requirement if we are to meet the challenge of cultural diversity is an appropriate data and research base. I think it is important that we build up our information and research data base in partnership with the minority groups themselves. We must establish what the health needs of diverse groups are; we must monitor uptake of services and how well we are responding to needs and we must monitor outcomes and health status. We must also examine the impact of the policies in other sectors on the health of minority groups. The National Health Information Strategy, currently being developed, and the recently published National Strategy for Health Research – Making Knowledge Work for Health provide important frameworks within which we can improve our data and research base.

A culturally diverse health sector workforce – challenges and opportunities

The Irish health service can benefit greatly from successful international recruitment. There has been a strong non-national representation amongst the medical profession for more than 30 years. More recently there have been significant increases in other categories of health service workers from overseas. The Department recognises the enormous value that overseas recruitment brings over a wide range of services and supports the development of effective and appropriate recruitment strategies in partnership with health service employers. These changes have made cultural diversity an important issue for all health service organisations. Diversity in the workplace is primarily about creating a culture that seeks, respects, values and harnesses difference. This includes all the differences that when added together make each person unique. So instead of the focus being on particular groups, diversity is about all of us. Change is not about helping “them” to join “us” but about critically looking at “us” and rooting out all aspects of our culture that inappropriately exclude people and prevent us from being inclusive in the way we relate to employees, potential employees and clients of the health service. International recruitment benefits consumers, Irish employees and the overseas personnel alike.

Regardless of whether they are employed by the health service, members of minority groups will be clients of our service and consequently we need to be flexible in order to accommodate different cultural needs. For staff, we recognise that coming from other cultures can be a difficult transition. Consequently health service employers have made strong efforts to assist them during this period. Many organisations provide induction courses, religious facilities (such as prayer rooms) and help in finding suitable accommodation.

The Health Service Employers Agency (HSEA) is developing an equal opportunities/diversity strategy and action plans as well as training programmes to support their implementation, to ensure that all health service employment policies and practices promote the equality/diversity agenda to continue the development of a culturally diverse health service.

The management of this new environment is extremely important for the health service as it offers an opportunity to go beyond set legal requirements and to strive for an acceptance and nurturing of cultural differences. Workforce cultural diversity affords us the opportunity to learn from the working practices and perspectives of others by allowing personnel to present their ideas and experience through teamwork, partnership structures and other appropriate fora, leading to further improvement in the services we provide.

It is important to ensure that both personnel units and line managers communicate directly with their staff and demonstrate by their actions that they intend to create an inclusive work place which doesn´t demand that minority staff fit. Contented, valued employees who feel that there is a place for them in the organisation will deliver a high quality health service.


Your conference here today has two laudable aims – to heighten awareness and assist health care staff to work effectively with their colleagues from different cultural backgrounds and to gain a greater understanding of the diverse needs of patients from minority ethnic backgrounds. There is a synergy in these aims and in the tasks to which they give rise in the management of our health service. The creative adaptations required for one have the potential to feed into the other. I would like to commend both organisations which are hosting this conference for their initiative in making this event happen, particularly at this time – Racism in the Workplace Week. I look forward very much to hearing the outcome of your deliberations.

Thank you.