Epidemiology and Medical Anthropology

I decided to write about the increasingly common practice of combining medical anthropology and epidemiology to use interdisciplinary methods in solving important global health issues. I am personally very interested in the epidemiology as a field of study because the cause and spread of disease can be affected by so many factors, from huge macro-level events, to the most microscopic of organisms. Epidemiology is defined as “the study of the distribution and determinants of disease” (Trostle et al. 1996), and the reasons behind the distributions and the biological, social, and cultural determinants also factor in heavily to fields of study that are of interest in applied medical anthropology. I hope to one day be a geriatric primary physician, and although I may not be on the front lines collecting the data with the epidemiologists and anthropologists, it will be very important to me to know about what disease are currently being spread and who is at risk because the geriatric population typically is the most infected and least able to fight off general infectious diseases. The geriatric population, along with children and the chronically ill are part of the most vulnerable subgroup of the population when it comes to contracting diseases, and this is true in almost all areas of the world.

If I was working with an epidemiologist on trying to come up with answers to why a particular disease is spreading and behaving in a certain manner, the knowledge and methods used by applied medical anthropologists would be indispensible in coming up with ways to combat a disease and answering the major questions about how to solve that particular health problem. The anthropological theories could help to assess what macro-level structures could be contributing to the rate a disease is spreading and why it is spreading in a particular pattern. They could look at the ecological systems, transportation patterns, and the culture’s ethnomedical systems in order to present a complete picture to the epidemiologists to help determine the distribution pattern of a disease and more importantly, why the disease is spreading in that specific manner. Applied medical anthropologists could also help epidemiologists, by using anthropological methods to collect data that could look at individuals with the disease they are studying and collect enough qualitative data to help identify the determinants of the disease and who is most at risk. This interdisciplinary approach could help treat and then move to prevent the further spread of that specific disease. The overlap of interests and fields of study between epidemiology and applied medical anthropology have led to a great increase in scientific studies that utilize areas of both professions, which then join together to help solve important health issues.



1-      Janes, Craig R. Anthropology and Epidemiology. Dordrecht, Holland: D. Reidel Publishing Company, 1986. http://books.google.com/books?hl=en&lr=&id=ggn-VgZceYAC&oi=fnd&pg=PR7&ots=BLo4530f_y&sig=pAEnIq_cFfQDZP7HrKlRcs5klJg

2-      Trostle, James, and Johannes Sommerfeld. “Medical Anthropology and Epidemiology.” Annual Review of Anthropology. 25. no. 1 (1996): 253-274. http://www.annualreviews.org/doi/pdf/10.1146/annurev.anthro.25.1.253 (accessed August 10, 2012).

1 thought on “Epidemiology and Medical Anthropology

  1. I also find epidemiology to be a valuable area of study for anthropologists because of all the factors that can play into an illness or disease within a culture as you described. Applied anthropologists benefit greatly from the inclusion of cultural determinants of epidemiology because they can provide answers and insights as to why certain illnesses are distributed in patterns across cultures instead of solely focusing on biomedical factors of disease. It is also important that people working in epidemiology and medical anthropology fields work to develop a preventive approach of medicine to inhibit the further spread of an illness while still providing the proper treatments and healthcare within a given community.
    This class has already significantly changed my views on health care and health care providers. Most notably, I have become much more interested in the holistic aspect of medicine as opposed to traditional western medicine that we are so familiar with in our culture. This has influenced me to consider pursuing osteopathic medicine, which incorporates preventive measures with modern medicine, focusing on public health and biomedicine. In the future, I will definitely be more receptive to alternative forms of medicine, as we have extensively looked into their effectiveness and they have become more widely recognized and legitimized in western medicine. I will be able to combine all of the anthropological approaches we have learned from to provide what I feel will be the most effective treatment for a patient as a health care provider.

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