Most citizens of developed countries are used to a naturalistic, empirical approach to
medicine. The doctor asks questions, performs exams and lab tests, matches the symptoms to the correct diagnosis, and prescribes treatment. Medical procedures are performed in clinical settings in which the patient is separated from the comfort and support of home and family. This approach is often useful, but it does not take into account the factors of culture, world view, and supernaturally-based beliefs about health and illness. Many patients who are using alternative healing methods do not tell clinicians about it, confusing the medical picture.
The field of medical anthropology has been known under various names since the nineteenth century, and has come into its own in the 1960s and 1970s. It is the cross-cultural study of health and illness, including explanation of illness, curing practices, epidemiology (distribution and spread of disease), and culture-specific diseases. It fills in the gaps left by modern-day medical education. Doctors rarely consider cultural background and beliefs when they treat their patients.
Folk medicine (also called popular medicine) is familiar to both doctors and anthropologist. It encompasses the many ways people treat illness in the absence of health care professionals. This knowledge is often scoffed at by practitioners of modern scientific medicine, but it has been the source of many pharmacological discoveries. As well, a belief in supernatural factors will greatly influence a patient's progress, and needs to be considered and integrated into the treatment plan if possible.
Shamans and other spiritual practitioners often experience great success because they give the patient many hours of focused attention in the familiar environment of home, unleashing natural healing forces which are suppressed in the impersonality and isolation of the clinical setting. Belief is a very powerful factor. If a patient strongly believes that a cure will succeed, stress is reduces, allowing the body to heal itself, especially if the physician also shares that belief.
The placebo effect (healing through the patient's belief) has been well documented. In the early 1990's Dr. Alan Roberts, head of the Division of Medical Psychology at Scripps Clinic in La Jolla, California. examined the records of 6,931 patients who underwent one of five different medical treatments that were later discovered to be ineffective. Despite the fact that the treatments had no actual curative properties, .40% of the patients had excellent results and 30% had good results. Only 30% reported no improvement. A team of psychologists led by Andrew Leuchter at U.C.L.A. carried out research in which placebos were used to treat patients with clinical depression. Many of the patients felt better after using the placebo, and scans of their brains showed that there was increased activity in the areas associated with mood and memory. Belief can actually cause organic changes in the body. Since placebos are highly culture specific, it is helpful for medical clinicians understand the world view of the patients.
Medical anthropologists study the development of medical systems, the relationship between healer and patient, the integration of medical systems in culturally diverse environments, the interaction of social, environmental and biological factors which influence health and illness, and the impact of biomedical technologies in non-Western settings. This type of knowledge is useful for maximizing the effectiveness of community health programs.
Medical anthropologists are trained in anthropology as their main discipline. They may have background in health care professions, or fields such as psychology, social work, or sociology. Their training is normally at the master's and doctoral level.
We all tend to be ethnocentric to some degree, believing that our group's cultural traditions and values are superior to all others. This blinds us to the needs and gifts of other ethnic groups. As planet Earth becomes a global village and populations become increasingly diverse, the field of medical anthropology will become increasingly important to guiding the establishment and operation of health care systems.
Sources and resources:
Wikipedia entry about medical anthropology
Society for medical anthropology