Clinical Medical Anthropology

Clinical Medical Anthropology is the intersection of applied medical anthropology that coincides with my personal interests due to my degrees in Human Biology and Psychology and my specializations in Bioethics, Humanities, and Society and Health Promotion. This sub-field appeals to me since clinical anthropologists operate as a facet of an interdisciplinary health care team in a hospital, health program, or health agency to improve quality of health care (Pui, 2003). In addition, clinical medical anthropologists are flexible in that the setting in which they work ranges from the developing world to domestic rural and urban locations.

If I were working for a healthcare practitioner, I would explain that hiring a clinical anthropologist is useful in that they contextualize ethnomedical health care beliefs and practices, emphasize experiential aspects of illness in cultural terms, and enhance the cultural sensitivity of physicians, nurses, medical technicians, and hospital administrators. For example, the World Health Organization and UNESCO declared 1996 the Year of Culture and Health, underscoring the paramount role that cultural explanatory models and cultural norms play in international health initiatives (Helman, 2007). In essence, clinical anthropologists can raise awareness about sociocultural barriers to health seeking behavior and compliance, act as advocates for patients of diverse cultural backgrounds, and improve physician-patient communication and satisfaction alike.

For example, in the YouTube video “Medical Anthropology,” it is described how a well-intentioned woman who tried to educate Peruvian villagers about water contamination was unsuccessful due to her failure to recognize the cultural belief that boiling water destroys the spirit of the earth. As Taz mentioned, clinical anthropologists can “act as cultural mediators to develop strategies for individual patients” tailored to cultural values and ideology (Karim, 2012). For example, the significance of employing culturally appropriate terms is demonstrated by Miss Lin, who dropped out of cognitive behavioral psychotherapy due to the providers’ use of technical jargon such as “anxiety disorder” and “depressive disorder” (Kleinman & Benson, 2006). In this case, the Chinese stigmatization of mental illness precluded her pursuit of further medical care; a clinical anthropologist was valuable in this instance since “neurasthenia” carried more culturally-appropriate connotations.

Conversely, clinical anthropologists can also facilitate cultural competence on the part of health care practitioners via “reflexivity…the ability to honestly examine their own cultural ‘baggage’, such as prejudices or particular beliefs, that may interfere with the successful and humane delivery of health care” (Helman, 2007). This mission is central to the US government’s Office of Minority Health (OMH), whose objective is to design culturally targeted health services, ensure informed consent, and reduce cultural health inequities (Helman, 2007). As Kleinman and Benson (2006) purport, suspension of ethnocentrism on the part of the health professional is fundamental since, “The culture of biomedicine is now seen as key to the transmission of stigma, the incorporation and maintenance of racial bias in institutions, and the development of health disparities across minority groups”.



Helman, Cecil G. (2007). Culture, Health, and Illness (5th ed.). UK: Hodder Arnold.

Karim, Taz. Medical Anthropology. Michigan State University. 10 August 2012.

Kleinman, A. & Benson, P. (October 2006). Anthropology in the Clinic: The Problem of Cultural Competency and How to Fix It. PLOS Medicine, 3(10): 1673-1376.

“Medical Anthropology” –Tribal Jazzman Scholar, Episode #26 [Video File]. August 10, 2012. Retrieved from

Pui, Jasmine. (September/October 2003). Medical Anthropology. Unique Opportunities: The Physician’s Resource.


4 thoughts on “Clinical Medical Anthropology

  1. I thought that all of your examples on how anthropology could contribute to clinical medical anthropology were very appropriate and enlightening. I put essentially the same things in my blog post so I cannot say there is much I would add to it. I really enjoyed the examples you were able to use to provide more support for your answers such as the youtube video you mentioned. It is amazing how you can go into a situation with the best intentions and try to help others but because of the cultural differences it can actually result in a misunderstanding that can upset and offend others greatly. I think it is very true that clinical anthropologists can “act as cultural mediators to develop strategies for individual patients”. Not enough physicians take each patient individually and look at it from case to case and I think that this can lead to many gaps in finding proper patient care and getting the most desired outcome. With the help of clinical anthropologists they can fill in these gaps and bring some insight as to what would be best for the patient. I think this class will affect me the most in my future career; I want to be a physician and now that I have this insight that treatment must be based on a number of things including culture, that I will be able to provide my patients with the best care possible.

  2. I think that you had a nice analysis and insightful views about the contributions of medical anthropology to many aspects of health promotion. I liked that your analysis was not constrained to one specific area of healthcare such as clinical medical anthropology’s intersection with biomedicine alone. Medical anthropology is a vast and broad field with many potential applications from the folk sector to the professional sector of healthcare. I think this class will affect my own interactions with health care by first off all giving me a renewed and more versatile point-of-view when it comes to alternative medicine practices. After seeing the movie Horse Boy I am a bit more open to non-biomedical health practices such as shamanism, whether the effects are merely placebo tricks of the mind or have some real spiritual cause. I believe that overall, clinically applied medical anthropology will mainly serve the purpose of enlightening both patients and health care provides a like, by bringing them together. In a sense, clinical medical anthropologists work as interpreters, helping health care providers to understand patient cultures and therefore find the best fitting treatments for each individual. By working with anthropologists, it is more likely that health care providers will be able to foster and maintain better communication and relationships with their patients in turn providing the best conditions for patient wellness and recovery.

  3. I agree with your evaluation of the field of clinical medical anthropology. I liked that you mentioned how anthropologist can act as advocates for patients of different cultural backgrounds. Since I also chose this topic I agree with most of what you wrote and do not have much to add. One thing I did write about that I see you did not was the example from class about the bed nets and malaria. I thought this was an important example to show how important and very much needed clinical medical anthologists are needed. Without them the problem of intended user of these bed nets for protection from disease carrying mosquitos would still not be using them at all or in the correct manner. Clinical medical anthologists were about to look at the culture and would in which these people lived in and was able to see the problems others were not able to.
    I think this class has opened up my eyes to the world a lot more. I am much more conscious of other cultures and how they may practice medicine differently than the western way of biomedicine. I think if I do decide to enter the field of medicine then I will much more prepared to deal with patients of different cultures and be able to respects their wishes because of the knowledge obtained in this class.

  4. I think that your reflection on Clinical Medical Anthropology was really thorough. I can’t think of anything in particular that you left out of your analysis. You explained the usefulness of anthropology in a clinical setting well.
    As far as how I think this class will affect future interactions with the health care system and health care providers, I’m not really sure. While the course material seems interesting, I felt that the format and difficulty of the class were flawed. Meaning, the assignments were way too easy and the pass/fail system did not allow for critiques of our arguments.(In my opinion, anyways) The main difference that will have come out of taking this class in regards to my interactions with health care will likely be with my perception of biomedicine. Previously I believed that most individuals would adopt biomedicine after listening to those who believe in it, but it seems that there are still a significant number of individuals who chose to follow their own beliefs regardless.
    I don’t think that this class will really have an effect on my interactions with health care in my future career. If I do pursue a medical degree it would be to become a radiologist; radiologists do not have as much patient contact as those in other positions as their position entails performing and evaluating the tests ordered by the patients primary care physician. While there still is doctor-patient interaction, there is not nearly as much of it occurring; I do not believe that there would be enough interaction for this class to have had a relevant impact. If I don’t pursue a medical degree, I would pursue a degree from a graduate school of Chemistry, and that career would have very little contact with the health care field. While this class was not what I expected I still feel that I learned a fair bit about the basics of anthropology. It remains to be seen whether I will take any more anthropology courses.

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