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Josepha Campinha-Bacote helps deliver health care to diverse cultural groups.

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As a third generation Cape Verdean growing up in Wareham, Mass., Josepha Campinha-Bacote ’74 would frequently tell her aging grandfather that he should see a doctor, something the elderly man was reluctant to do. Then, on one occasion he relented. The doctor prescribed some medication for him. Five days later her grandfather was found dead, having taken the medication improperly.

That tragic experience helped crystallize Campinha-Bacote’s intentions to specialize in what has come to be called transcultural health care. “My grandfather died because of linguistic and interpretive issues,” she notes. “He spoke a form of Portuguese Creole (Krioulo) that his health care providers didn’t know. They were unfamiliar with Portuguese dialects and Cape Verdean traditions. He had an entirely different concept of time, for instance, which caused him to misunderstand the directions he was given for taking the medication.”

Among the first in her family to complete high school and graduate from college, Campinha-Bacote knew before she enrolled at URI as a transfer student in 1972 that she wanted to specialize in psychiatric nursing. She did not necessarily foresee the path she would create in the delivery of health care to diverse cultural groups, from Cape Verdeans to Southeast Asians, Hispanics, Africans and others.

As the founder and president of Transcultural C.A.R.E. Associates, a private consultation service focusing on clinical, administrative, research, and educational issues in transcultural health care, she has been among the country’s most significant leaders in expanding the training and knowledge of health care providers. 

Her consulting work has taken her all over the country for presentations to health care providers. Through her work and advanced studies over three decades, Campinha-Bacote has developed conceptual models of cultural competence for training health care professionals that are being used in colleges of medicine, nursing, dentistry, pharmacy, social work and allied disciplines worldwide.  As an educator, Campinha-Bacote has been adjunct faculty at several universities and is currently on the faculty at Case Western Reserve.

Her achievements were recognized last April when she was presented with the Lifetime Achievement Award at URI’s 8th annual Diversity Awards Banquet. That night in the Memorial Union ballroom, after promising not to give a long, boring speech, she not only kept her promise of brevity but also delivered a stirring call to leadership and service.

Speaking with the blended force of an old style preacher and a humorous contemporary motivator, she told the banquet audience: “As scripture states, I believe we must clothe ourselves in humility. Humility is a paradox. Once you acknowledge that you are humble, you lose humility. I believe there is a theological way to seek it by finding greatness in others. Maya Angelou says we should always be aware that others have come before us. The African proverb says, ‘I am because we are.’ I’m here because there were people before me.

“My mother and father set the path for me. I tell people all the time that a good leader is a good servant. People don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care.” That mantra has guided the life of this woman who, after completing her undergraduate studies at URI, earned a master’s degree in nursing in 1980 at Texas Women’s University, a Ph.D. in nursing at the University of Virginia in 1986, and a master’s of art in religion at Cincinnati Christian University in 2006. Her early studies focused on psychiatric nursing and anthropology, so she was well on her way to developing models of transcultural health care.

“It’s unique to health care,” she says of both models, especially the most recent one she has developed, called “A Biblically Based Model of Cultural Competence in the Delivery of Healthcare Services.” “This biblical approach isn’t specific to a particular religion. It has to do with motivating health care professionals to want to become culturally competent, and it is based on biblical principles. This isn’t just about cultural diversity and competence. There’s more to it than being able to speak Spanish or knowing when to bow. It has to do with achieving a balance between our beliefs and patients’ beliefs. There is one truth—love as contained in the Bible; I don’t teach political correctness. This motivation must come from the heart.”

Married to Dexter Campinha-Bacote, the medical director of a large managed health care organization in Ohio, she has three children. Her eldest son is in law school, second son is a college senior majoring in child psychology, and her daughter is in junior high school.

As a leader in her field, she has been tapped to serve on numerous national committees including the National Advisory Committee to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services Office of Minority Health. That committee was charged with developing culturally and linguistically appropriate services in health care, which has become more and more important in recent years as the spectrum of immigration expands.

“Living in Ohio, I was amazed to find a large community of Somalis living here. They illustrate the need for cultural competency in all its complexity. There are specific illnesses they are prone to that American health care providers might not be aware of. There are huge cultural differences and language issues.

“This is where the motivational factors come into play. Providers must desire to understand the patients and their cultural issues. I believe you can teach desire to people. That is what my competency models are all about.”

The Diversity Award was not the first her alma mater has given her. Campinha-Bacote received an Alumni Excellence Award in 2001 and had earlier been recognized by the College of Nursing for her professional contributions. She has similarly been honored by colleges and professional organizations around the country.

The awards are the last thing you’ll hear this clever, energetic woman talk about if you are fortunate enough to hear her speak. “My cultural background was the genesis of my professional life,” she says. “That is how I am reminded all the time that I did not get here by myself; other people prepared the way.”

By John Pantalone ’71space picturePhoto by Photo By Nora Lewis

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