In response to widely documented racial and ethnic disparities in health, clinicians and public health advocates have taken great strides to implement ‘culturally competent’ care. While laudable, this important policy and intellectual endeavour has suffered from a lack of conceptual clarity and rigour. This paper develops a more careful conceptual model for understanding the role of culture in the clinical encounter, paying particular attention to the relationship between culture, contexts and social structures. Linking Bourdieu's (1977) notion of ‘habitus’ and William Sewell's (1992) axioms of multiple and intersecting structures, we theorise patient culture in terms of ‘hybrid habitus’. This conceptualisation of patient culture highlights three analytical dimensions: the multiplicity of schemas and resources available to patients, their specific patterns of integration and application in specific contexts, and the constitutive role of clinical encounters. The paper concludes with a discussion of directions for future research as well as reforms of cultural competency training courses.