Global Health and Medical Anthropology

One of my required readings for ANP 201 was Paul Farmer’s book “Pathologies of Power: Health, Human Rights, and the New War on the Poor.”  This was where I first began to understand the importance of global health and how anthropology fits within the system.  I loved the book and Paul Farmer became a huge hero to me.  For some reason the fact escaped me that he was a medical anthropologist.  I knew he was a medical doctor and an anthropologists but for some reason I didn’t make to connection to medical anthropology.  Maybe I didn’t know what medical anthropology was at the time and therefore it eluded me.

I do not see global health or even medical anthropology being a part of my future career, although I do have a very strong interest in global health and my heart breaks whenever I hear about the many disparities people are forced to suffer through in developing countries and certain parts of our own country.  I, like Paul Farmer and most other developed countries, believe that medical care is a basic human right and should be available equally to all people.  The fact that the majority of my anthropology education has been focused on archaeology, and not medical anthropology, and I graduate after next semester may prevent me from obtaining a job in this field due to my lack of knowledge.  Maybe if MSU had offered this class sooner I could have focused my energy in this field of study.

I believe understanding a patient’s culture, worldview, and beliefs about science and medicine is extremely important in the medical system.  Anthropologists have the knowledge and ability to moderate between doctors and patients through the use of ethnography and other methods.  An example of a situation where anthropologists intervened was that of Ms. Lin who was from China but moved to America in order to attend school.[1]  After refusing to take her medications for anxiety, an anthropologist became involved to find out why.  The anthropologist found that China has a very strong stigma associated with mental illness and by the doctors describing her condition as an anxiety disorder, and the stigma associated with a mental disorder in her culture, she refused to participate in that role.  The anthropologist discovered that the Chinese call this condition neurasthenia which is considered a stress-related condition and not a mental disorder.  After discovering this about the Chinese culture medical staff began to call her condition neurasthenia instead of anxiety disorder and Ms. Lin began to take her medicine.  This may not have been discovered unless there was a person set in place in the medical system who had the knowledge to ask the right questions.  In this way acting as mediator between doctor and patient an anthropologist role is invaluable.


[1] Arthur Kleinman, Peter Benson, “Anthropology in the Clinic: The Problem of Cultural Competency and How to Fix It,” Plos Medicine,

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