Cross-Cultural Challenges in Global Medical Projects

Posted on January 12, 2015

Cross-Cultural Challenges in Global Medical Projects

Cross-Cultural Challenges in Global Medical Projects

Science and research is a global field with international, interdisciplinary collaborations and globally connected research and development projects. Multicultural teams work together to create innovative new solutions for pressing global clinical issues such as the recent outbreak of the Ebola virus in Western Africa in the fall of 2014. With the multitude of nationalities, disciplines, and sectors working together, cross-cultural challenges emerge for these global project teams that can cause wasted time, funding and resources.

Cultural mental filters

Although science is understood to be a fact- and data-driven field, all multicultural project teams face cross-cultural challenges, partly as a result of our brain’s evolutionary development. In order to reduce the amount of information we absorb to a manageable level, we as humans tend to view our world through a cultural lens that— by default— sets standards for how we interpret, judge and behave. Our past socialized experiences have created mental models of how the world works— or at least what is considered “normal” and “right” in our culture, which we may use as mental shortcuts for the world as we see it. These models create mental filters to focus our attention on what we have been taught and learned to be important. By filtering out supposedly superfluous information, we risk missing important cues from alternative cultural perspectives. When facing a shared set of data, the conclusion we draw will ultimately differ from the conclusion of someone from a different background because the tools we use to interpret that data are informed by our background. Building an inclusive team environment where these different interpretations are equally valued will decrease frustrations and diminish the risk of subgroup creation.

Language skills and cultural awareness

While English remains the language of science, it is actually only spoken natively by around 7% of the world’s population (ScienceMag, 2004). Though Research & Development staff may feel comfortable reading and writing in English, discussions may still prove challenging in an international work context where one must deal with different accents, idioms and translation issues.

Cross-cultural differences in project teams express themselves in different approaches to work such as knowledge transfer, information sharing, teaching, training, risk-taking or decision-making. Each project members’ style is influenced by culture. A failure to anticipate how these cross-cultural differences might impact the project efforts is short-sighted and creates frustration, wasted time, resources and money.

Choosing a theoretically-established framework like cultural dimensions to pinpoint challenging collaboration areas within the team is a good first step to address this major challenge.

Russian microbiologist Svetlana Dedysh visited both Michigan State University in the 1990s and the Max Planck Institute in Marburg, Germany in the 2000s as a researcher and noticed the detail-oriented and analytic atmosphere in the German laboratories. […], she found the American attitude to be “sparkling enthusiasm, full confidence that everything you are doing is right. Now she applies both approaches in her work.(ScienceMag, 2014)

Disregarding local conditions

Local markets need a different work approach to adapt to local circumstance. For example, clinical trials may require separate regional handling of ethics approval or data confidentiality. Meanwhile team members in medical teams might also have different levels of access to equipment/expertise in their respective working environments. Having a uniform approach to a global project may undermine local knowledge and the advantages of the different locations, as well as neglect to take into account the difficulties that certain markets and locations might have in meeting global standards.

“Researchers with collaborators in countries with limited scientific infrastructure and support, where overnight delivery is a luxury and not standard practice, should be mindful of the bureaucracy and wait times faced by their colleagues”, Puerto-Rican researcher Mónica Feliú-Móje advises. (ScienceMag, 2014)

Aperian Global’s Director of Consulting in APAC, Christie Caldwell, provides insights into the importance of cultural intelligence for global project teams in her recently published book chapter, titled “Cultural Competency in International Health Program Collaboration”. Click here for a direct, downloadable link to the chapter in the book “Radiology in Global Health: Strategies, Implementations and Applications”.


Sources: ScienceMag, October 2014


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