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Health insurance provider Aetna hopes to use the Internet to make doctors and nurses more culturally sensitive.

The company on Nov. 17 announced that clinicians who are part of the Aetna network or who have filed a claim with the insurer can take online courses in cross-cultural care for free.

The online course is part of a suite of other resources for ethnically diverse populations, including a training video as well as multiple brochures in Spanish that cover issues from diabetes and patient safety. Physicians and nurses who complete the training receive credit toward their continuing education requirements.

Several studies have found that minorities receive worse care than white patients, even if differences in severity of disease and income disparities are considered. Separate studies have found that patients who are better-trained in self care actually do take better care of themselves and are less likely to require more expensive treatments and hospitalizations. However, both initial diagnosis and subsequent counseling by clinicians are less effective if they do not account for cultural factors, such as attitudes toward accepting help, traditional medicines and reporting problems, according to the studies.

Several health insurers have sought to encourage healthy behaviors by creating Web sites for patients that provide health advice or by providing educational materials to patients.

“Aetna must continue to build bridges with the medical community, and the private and public sectors, to reduce the racial and ethnic gaps that pervade health care today,” said Troy Brennan, the company’s chief medical officer, in a statement.

After collecting voluntary information about its members’ race, ethnicity and language preference, Aetna officials said the company created culturally focused information and disease management programs. The company is also using this information to identify disparities, support and encourage new research, and test new approaches to reducing disparities in health care, officials said.

Aetna has required its clinical employees to have cross-cultural training since 2003. The interactive training program focuses on common clinical and cross-cultural scenarios that build a framework of knowledge and skills for delivering quality care to diverse patient populations.

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