StoriesLynn Stoller ’10

Fostering Religious & Cultural Understanding in Healthcare

Lynn Stoller, a graduate of our Intercultural Relations master's program, develops and delivers religious and cultural awareness training to healthcare providers nationwide.

lynn stoller in the streets of NYC
Photo credit: Bob Johnson

While many graduates from our International Higher Education and Intercultural Relations master's degree program (formerly named Intercultural Relations) pursue exciting careers at universities in study abroad or international student advising, others use their degree in dynamic fields outside of higher education. 

Lynn Stoller '10 is one such alumna. For the past five years, Lynn has been working at the Tanenbaum Center for Interreligious Understanding in New York City, a secular nonprofit organization that strives to eliminate religious prejudice in healthcare settings, workplaces, schools, and areas of armed conflict. 

As the assistant program director of Tanenbaum's healthcare program, she designs and delivers professional development to healthcare providers to deepen their religious and cultural understanding as it applies to their work with patients. Her 'religio-cultural' competence trainings develop a greater awareness of how a person's (or family's) religious and cultural beliefs may influence the way they view injury or illness, how they define respectful care, or their healthcare decisions. 

Participants also learn ways to communicate effectively and respectfully with patients and families about their beliefs as they relate to their care. 

We asked Lynn about her career working with healthcare professionals and how her graduate degree in Intercultural Relations has prepared her for this job.

Why is there a need for religious and cultural competence in healthcare? 

A number of research studies demonstrate that religion is something patients want their healthcare providers to address. 

Not addressing or validating a patient's religious beliefs means that, for many, you're leaving out a huge component of their identity, making it difficult for a healthcare provider to offer truly patient-centered, quality care, even if that's what they intend to do. 

This goes for everything from concerns around modesty during a physical exam to more challenging conversations around life and death. For example, a hospital in Maine was struggling with as many as 3 out of 10 Muslim women canceling or delaying appointments. After reaching out to the community, the hospital discovered that the women found the hospital's gowns too revealing and, as such, conflicted with their religious beliefs about modesty. The hospital redesigned the standard gown to provide extra coverage*. 

My work at Tanenbaum focuses specifically on religion because it is an area under the “cultural competence” umbrella that is often overlooked or avoided. Healthcare providers may see religion as irrelevant, problematic, or simply a topic they feel unprepared to address due to a lack of training and education around how to broach the subject. Addressing this knowledge gap is what our healthcare program at Tanenbaum is all about.

"One of the things I loved about the Intercultural Relations program is that the content is overarching enough to be broadly applicable to a variety of career goals, but specific enough to give you tangible tools and skill sets."
Lynn Stoller ’10

How do you move healthcare professionals toward religious and cultural understanding, while also discouraging the formation of stereotypes?

Within medicine and other fields, one of the important ways we learn is by applying information we gained in past experiences to similar situations that we encounter further down the road.

Often in trainings I’m asked: ‘So how does that work with culture and religion? Can we make those assumptions or is that stereotyping?

My response is that it depends on how that knowledge is used. Generalizations are a category of information that includes common trends. If used appropriately they can be a helpful starting point to know what questions a healthcare provider should ask to better understand a patient's religious or cultural beliefs and practices. When used incorrectly, however, generalizations devolve into stereotypes that don't look beyond initial assumptions.

Generalizations are meant to serve as practical guidelines but they are not meant to be the only reality or truth for every patient. In other words, we tell healthcare providers, ‘Don’t assume, ask!’

How has the material you learned in your master’s program helped you in your current job?

There is so much from Lesley's Intercultural Relations graduate program that I use daily.

Intercultural Communication

The Intercultural Communication course outlines differences in communication styles that are very salient when it comes to patient/physician communication—something I reference frequently in my trainings. What does it mean when a patient doesn’t make eye contact? Why didn’t this patient shake my hand? These types of communication dynamics often link back to cultural communication differences.

Qualitative Research

In all of my work at Tanenbaum, I implement strategies to measure and present the efficacy of our work. The Dimensions and Methods of Cultural Exploration course prepared me in some of the skill sets needed for qualitative data collection—how to formulate good questions for interviews and focus groups, how to identify and group themes that emerge, and how to present that information in a way that is useful and interesting.

Morality & Moral Difference

The Agency and Ethics in a Pluralistic World course presents concepts about morality and moral differences that are essential for all cultural competence training work but especially, I think, when you’re talking about bioethics and healthcare where discussions are so often circling around life and death issues. Is it moral to allow a teenager that is a Jehovah’s Witness to die because he has religious objections to the only treatment available that involves blood products? Should a hospital be required to continue to treat a patient that has been declared brain dead if the family believes, based on their religious beliefs, that their loved one is still alive? Whether dealing with topics such as contraception, abortion, or aid in dying, the Agency and Ethics in a Pluralistic World course gave me some frameworks to help me engage in these ethical discussions.

Social Identity & Culture

The Dynamics of Self and Culture course has been foundational in all of the training I do with healthcare providers. I'm able to better help them become more aware of how their own identities and value systems shape their interactions with patients so that they can better manage those influences and understand how those influences shape the perspectives and decisions of their patients.


  1. Revealing Hospital Gowns Redesigned. (2004, Aug. 17). USA Today.
  2. The Muslim Patient Will See You Now, Doctor. (2004, Sept. 1). New York Times