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 http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NjDPwF9uV58
Pui, Jasmine. (September/October 2003). Medical Anthropology. Unique Opportunities: The Physician’s Resource.