Teaching at the Convergence of Pandemics and Historically Excluded Patient Populations: The Challenges, and Importance, of Culturally Responsive Communication

Abigail Konopasky*, Annette B. Gadegbeku, Leon McCrea, Paige McDonald, Patrick G. Corr, Maranda C. Ward

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


Issue: Historically excluded patient populations—particularly racial, ethnic, and sexually and gender minoritized people—experience gross inequities in health, worsened by the HIV and COVID-19 pandemics. Culturally responsive communication (CRC) is a vital tool health professionals can use to address these inequities. Yet, CRC can be challenging to teach, particularly during pandemics. The authors argue that pandemics magnify the powerful intersecting oppressions of heterosexism, racism, transphobia, nationalism, and sexism, essentially targeting Othered bodies for dying, a phenomenon known as necropolitics. Evidence: Five aspects of pandemics make teaching CRC more difficult and, because of the magnification of necropolitics, more critical. First, pandemics heighten teachers’ and learners’ personal frailties, engendering worries about their own and their families’ health and increasing cognitive load. This can make it difficult for them to embrace the discomfort required of CRC, particularly when an increased patient load is squeezing instructional time. Second, guidelines for HIV and COVID-19 testing, prevention, and treatment are ever-changing, often faster than the pace of curriculum development and instructor professional development. Third, for instructors who may already be stretched thin, it is challenging to prepare learners for the variability in how their future practice contexts may address HIV and COVID-19 and, further, how to take a social justice approach to assess and resist the distinct equity issues of each of these contexts. Fourth, pandemics cause uncertain access to patient information about testing, disease status, and vaccination or pre-exposure prophylaxis. This worsens already disparate outcomes for minoritized patients and adds to the complexity of CRC curricula. Finally, virtual care is more prevalent in pandemics and teaching CRC in online contexts can be difficult. Implications: To address these challenges, we adopt the Dimensionality and R4P Health Equity Framework as a tool for evaluating academic programs for CRC so that it remains robust amidst pandemics. This tool addresses the varied social positions and identities (i.e., “dimensions”) that present different opportunities for health. We offer specific evaluation questions programs can ask and approaches they can take to (a) redress past harms through removing existing racist, heteronormative and transphobic structures and repairing the damage they have done; (b) plan for a more equitable future by restructuring via policy and organizational change and providing programs that address intersectional disadvantage; and (c) critically evaluate the present by remediating current damage immediately until restructuring efforts are fully functional. As Martin Luther King, Jr. stated, “Of all the forms of inequality, injustice in healthcare is the most shocking and inhuman because it often results in physical death.” It is our imperative to teach CRC with intentionality; otherwise we will support necropolitics as we continue to condone disproportionate morbidity and mortality for racialized and queer bodies.

Original languageEnglish
JournalTeaching and Learning in Medicine
StateAccepted/In press - 2023
Externally publishedYes


  • COVID-19
  • Cultural responsiveness
  • HIV
  • equity
  • historically excluded


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