Global Health and Medical Anthropology

I picked the intersection of global health and medical anthropology because it is of the most interest to me.  Last spring I took ANP 320 and my professor talked about her research about medical students treating patients in Malawi.  I thought it was interesting that rather than analyzing a different medical system in a different country, she analyzed and critiqued an American medical system working in a different country.  I majored in History, philosophy, and sociology of science so I find it very interesting to look at how different cultures understand health and the body and especially the incongruencies between western medical systems and others.  Although I find this area interesting, it has nothing to do with future career.  I decided to leave the world of healthcare two years ago and pursue a greater passion, literature.

If I was working as a health care provider such as a doctor, nurse, or in a NGO providing health care to people within a different cultural context, taking an anthropological approach would be helpful to create the most effective treatment plans for patients.  It is important to understand how people understand the body and how it works so that you can treat patients, or even just explain treatment plans, in a way that makes sense in their cultural context and does not violate their beliefs.  One example of this brings me back to a few weeks ago when we read about treating Hmong patients in California.  Because their ideas of illness are more focus on the spirit and not on the body, our biomedical explanation does not seem to correlate well.  Also, many of our treatment plans such as surgery violate body taboos and would not even make sense as a treatment for a spirit problem.  CITE.  A second way that taking an anthropological approach would be helpful is that it can help one learn which topics are all right to talk about and which ones are not.  For example, in the lecture a case was briefly mentioned of birth control and sexual health in India.  Because sexuality and sex outside of marriage are taboo topics, a sexual health discussion like those that are given here in many high schools or simply by doctors to patients of a certain age would not be appropriate and the information may be ignored.  In that case it would be much more beneficial to find a way to discuss safe sex within the context of marriage so as not to offend anyone or presume that one is condoning sex in an inappropriate context.

Fadiman, Anne. The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down: A Hmong Child, Her American Doctors, and the Collision of Two Cultures. New York: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 1997. Print.


1 thought on “Global Health and Medical Anthropology

  1. I was in that ANP320 class as well! It really started me thinking of anthropology not as just the study of a culture in situ, but cultures upon cultures within cultures in today’s quickly globalizing world. This is where the applied approach comes in handy, because instead of traveling to remote areas just to watch other humans we can use our knowledge to solve major global issues like health care. Being westerners, we sure are raised to believe that biomedicine is “common sense” as the most objective way to heal people. But as we have learned, the placebo effect and belief systems can be just as powerful. I agree that cultural concepts need to be taken into consideration when creating programs such as sexual health in India, or similarly, supplying poorer communities with what WE believe to be most beneficial, as was discussed this week. However, it is always important to still consider that it may not be culture inhibiting treatment, and other factors such as socioeconomic status come into play as well.

    As far as my personal medical experience goes, I haven’t been to the doctor since 2003 so I guess you could say I have never been a big supporter of the system (my mother is a nurse, so I’ve always been just fine). A lot of people are almost appalled when they hear I don’t make regular appointments, but luckily (for me) this class has helped show that doing so really is just a facet of the culture of biomedicine. In the very first week of class, reading the Nacirema article, one thing stuck out to me – in regards to the dentist, it said that we keep going back even though our teeth keep falling out. I’m going to keep brushing my teeth, but I will definitely not consider western practice to be the one and only truth in medicine.

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