It was a hot and dusty day in mid-July, 1799, near Rashid (called Rosetta by the French), Egypt, when Napoleon’s advancing army turned up a strange flat slab with inscriptions covering one side. We have come to call what they found the Rosetta Stone—famous because it enabled scholars to decipher and interpret hieroglyphics.

The Rosetta Stone has writing on it using hieroglyphic, demotic, and Greek scripts. These three different scripts were used concurrently in Egypt at the time the stone was carved. By comparing the same message, expressed three ways, scholars were able to figure out the meaning of hieroglyphics that had been hidden before.

It took nearly 25 years of scholarly work, but eventually the Rosetta stone became the key for understanding and interpreting the culture and customs of ancient Egypt.

The term “Rosetta Stone” has come to be a metaphor for the key to understanding a complex situation. When you have a “Rosetta Stone” you are able to make sense of things, and full communication is possible.

It is estimated that 80% of clinical errors stem from communication problems. Think of that: 80%. How better to respond to that startling statistic than to address a root cause: communication hampered by an incomplete toolset for addressing culture and values in understanding?

Cultural competence is a powerful “Rosetta Stone” in healthcare. It means that our systems of care have been carefully designed to meet the needs of diverse patient populations. It addresses the communication between caregivers and patients and families of different ethnic and cultural backgrounds. It empowers systems that are dynamic, responsive, and more effective in meeting patient needs.

Recognition and respect for the culture, language, and values of our individual patients fosters trust and confidence in the care being delivered, and lowers the barriers to effectiveness and efficiency.

The scholars who deciphered the Rosetta Stone were able to do so because they applied what they knew from one script to the unknown scripts. They imagined. They guessed. They paid attention to what they were learning and applied that, too. That changed the Rosetta Stone from an artifact to a tool for understanding.

Being able to translate and communicate changes everything. It addresses disparities that have been hidden from us, impacts quality of care, and ultimately helps us achieve the health outcomes that we seek for our patients, their families, and our communities. Patient satisfaction goes up—and so does our success in achieving our mission.