W7: Combining Biomedicine and Medical Anthropology

After the end of the semester, there’s a lot that I will be taking away from this class regarding the complex and intricate relationship between culture, health, and illness. The information that most stuck out to me throughout this class was how incorporating medical anthropology into biomedicine could greatly benefit everyone who seeks biomedical care, no matter their cultural background.

I think when medicine treats with just pharmaceutical drugs and doesn’t treat the person as a whole, but instead separates the mind and body in what’s termed the Cartesian Duality (Lecture 3.1), the medical professionals are only looking at the particular symptom(s).  Not looking at the person’s culture/beliefs (Fadiman, 1997), the overall health of an individual, their lifestyle, their explanatory model highlighting how they view their illness (Kleinman, 1988), and the environment they live in, creates a very narrow view of the health issues that individuals deal with and I feel that, after listening to the lectures and doing all of the readings for this class, this isn’t an incredibly affective method of practicing medicine.

Furthermore, sometimes using pharmaceutical drugs isn’t necessary to fix a health problem.  This was seen in Dr. Berga’s research.  She found that women who were having issues with fertility were able to increase their ovulation by undergoing cognitive behavioral therapy (Epstein, 2007).  By reducing stress, 7 out of 8 women were able to improve their overall fertility, and this was all done without the use of any pharmaceutical drugs.  A similar study done at University of California Berkeley found similar results: when stress was decreased, fertility was improved due to Gonadotropin-Inhibitory Hormone, which “impedes procreation”, being lowered (Presti, 2009).

After reading Fadiman’s book, I have a greater understanding of just how narrow the biomedical practice is.  Doctors in this book did not concern themselves with learning about the culture of their patient, Hmong child Lia Lee, but instead they diagnosed her illness and treated it with multiple pharmaceutical drugs.  This proved to be ineffective at treating her illness, and in the end contributed to the sepsis that brought on her big seizure that permanently debilitated her.  The ups and downs of Lia Lee’s life provide a very clear example of how ineffective biomedicine is when it’s fighting against the culture of the people it’s treating.  If the culture of biomedicine and the cultures of the individuals it seeks to treat could be combined into a cooperative method of improving people’s health and treating their illnesses, who knows how much more effective practicing medicine could be and how many more positive outcomes could be achieved.

An article that I think would be a good addition to this course is “Cultural Aspects of Health and Illness Behavior in Hospitals” by Joseph and Elizabeth Ann Hartog because it discusses how culture can impact the way an illness is perceived and how an individual “will behave as a patient” (Hartog and Hartog, 1983).  Furthermore, this article also discusses the difficulties that can occur between individuals of different cultures, such as language barriers.  This is similar to the cultural road blocks that were discussed in Fadiman’s book.  (Link: http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC1011024/pdf/westjmed00196-0140.pdf)

Presti, Lilian.  “Reduce stress, increase fertility.” Chicago Tribune (2009).  Accessed August 16, 2016. http://www.chicagotribune.com/entertainment/sns-health-stress-fertility-story.html


4 thoughts on “W7: Combining Biomedicine and Medical Anthropology

  1. Hi Lucy, I really enjoyed reading your post! I strongly agree with you that combining medical anthropology with biomedicine would greatly improve our healthcare system. I really like how you discussed the narrow-minded views of some doctors and how they sometimes don’t utilize a patients’ background, culture, and lifestyle. The situation with Lia Lee and her family being misunderstood was truly heartbreaking. It was horrible to see how little doctors attempted to communicate with the family. The Lee’s misunderstanding led to their child being removed from their care. (Fadiman, 1997). This example really shows how a lack of communication and understanding of culture can be frustrating and detrimental. I also really liked how you discussed the use of cognitive behavioral therapy when treating patients with infertility. (Epstein, 2007). I feel that too often doctors are always prescribing pharmaceutical drugs for problems, instead of trying alternative methods first. I definitely agree with the science behind pharmaceutical drugs working but, sometimes patient’s have underlying emotional issues. It’s important for doctors to listen and hear their patients out before jumping the gun. Also, an integration of medical systems is imperative. If these changes are made I truly feel that patient care will be improved throughout the US.

  2. I also believe that incorporating medical anthropology into biomedicine would be greatly beneficial to everyone. I like how you talked about not separating the brain and the body. I too believe it to be very important to keep the brain and mind involved in the treatment process. Every patient is unique and his or her illnesses cannot always be defined in a book. Looking at their culture and beliefs can give so many more clues to what it actually happening to them. I too agree that, ignoring these factors along with the environment is a very poor way of practicing medicine.

    I loved learning about the ways that patients can be treated without drugs. So many other factors go into a diagnosis that are not specifically scientific, so it makes sense to pay attention to other ways to treat an illness than drugs. If we do not take a step back and consider everything about a patient, there are bound to be more mistakes made just like in Lia’s case. Biomedicine produces very advanced technology that can help patients tremendously. Although, without considering people’s beliefs and cultures, many things can get overlooked. The ultimate goal, would to be to start combining medical anthropology into biomedicine to help advance Western medicine. I hope you had a great time in this course!

  3. Lucy,

    I totally agree that merging biomedicine and medical anthropology would be beneficial to society as a whole. I was also interested in the “Cartesian Duality” where big pharma separates the body and soul. I wrote the majority of my blog post on this because I’ve always wondered why medicine is so separate from the psychological field, which relies heavily on thoughts and feelings.
    I liked that your article didn’t demonize biomedicine completely. We really do need a balance of both biomedicine and medical anthropology to move forward in this world. Biomedicine is pretty great at saving lives (like surgeries and other emergency situations). However, I feel like biomedicine has become a business, making capital off of sick people. I liked that you brought up how medicalized biomedicine is with Dr. Berga’s research on the relationships between stress and fertility. I thought that these similarities drove home the connectedness of body and mind. I remember in a cognitive psychology class we discussed the evolutionary necessities of stress having effects on the body: when a human was stressed, it usually meant they lacked resources to keep themselves alive, and therefore the body shut down their fertility since they would most likely not have enough resources to support a child.

  4. Hi Lucy,
    I really enjoyed reading your post. I also believe combining medical anthropology and biomedicine could be greatly beneficial. A lot of what we have been learning throughout this course is how important it is to take into account more than just the physical body when evaluating a health condition. I agree that pharmaceutical drugs is not always the answer to health problems. In fact, sometimes its better to use alternative treatments instead of pharmaceuticals. The use of too many drugs can lead our bodies to become immune to them, and they may not work when we need them the most.
    I really enjoyed learning the way different cultures treat diseases in alternative ways besides drug use. I find their different methods extremely interesting. I think western medicine should be more open to learning about these various methods and cultures, and potentially incorporate them into their medical practices. I agree the there needs to also be better communication between the doctor and the patient as far as their personal life and not just there symptoms. If more aspects of a person’s life is taken into account there will be less mistakes is diagnosis and better results from treatment. Overall great post!

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