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An Introduction to Medical Anthropology

Omkar Phatak
Medical anthropology is a broad interdisciplinary sub-sector. It deals with evolution of medicine and health in diverse cultures, alternative forms of medicine, and the impact of culture and society on health . It studies social peculiarities that affect medical systems and awareness. It covers the social aspect of medicine and its complications.
Anthropology is the study of all dimensions of what it means to be a human. Medical anthropology concerns itself with the concept of holistic health and medicine in human culture. It explores all the intricacies of man being a social animal.
It also studies the implications of this fact on the health of an individual and also the genesis of medicine or healing practices that emerged in different cultures over the centuries. The ultimate goal is betterment of health of the society as a whole and the prevention of diseases in all its forms, through measures that address deep-rooted causes.
Pure medicine solves only the immediate causal problems of a pathological condition, considering only the biological evidence that can be gathered through tests, in situ.
Whereas, medical anthropology studies and investigates the deeper social causes and combinations of social circumstances, as well as behavioral traits that lead to the cause and spread of the disease. It also concerns itself with the distribution of health care services and what impact the structure of a society has on them.
It explores the origin of branches of alternative medicine like Ayurveda with scriptural as well as non-scriptural sources, which have developed in different ethnic groups and hold a special place in the hearts of those people.

Applied Medical Anthropology

It is the practical application of theoretical principles to real data and involves the testing of propounded theories. A predominant activity in this field is collecting and interpreting biometric, genetic, social, and medical data of diverse ethnic groups.
This information enables the medical anthropologist to study certain endemic diseases and other local problems and make a causal connection between them.
The interaction of humans with factors in the ecosystem like other animals and use of resources like water, food, air, and their quality is also studied. It enables the diagnosis of a disease or an epidemic in totality.
The study of nutrition and dietary intakes in a community, enables these professionals to find the causes of malnutrition and diseases related to the same.
A large part of research goes into the study of psychiatric diseases and psychosomatic disorders which are largely caused by social malfunctioning of an individual, as well as chemical imbalances.
People in this field also study social and domestic violence as a psychological disease and work on providing help to the victims in such cases. Also, they work on creating an environment, where such people can openly come out and seek help. Rehabilitation of victims in trauma also forms a large part of the work.
Research is also in progress on study of alternative medicine and its fusion with modern medicine. That way, we can have the best of both approaches and benefit society. In short, this field requires the combined expertise of a medical professional, a social worker, and an anthropologist.

To Be a Medical Anthropologist

To train to be a medical anthropologist, one has to have a proper Master's degree in Anthropology. Preferably, this should be precluded by a medical background, nursing experience, or a background in social field.
Many people from the field of psychiatry too opt for this path. Being an interdisciplinary field, there are many pathways for entry into it. In many universities, it is offered as a postgraduate course like M.A. or M.Sc.
Doctoral level programs are also conducted in US universities like John Hopkins, University of South Florida, and UC Berkeley. The ability to analyze and process diverse kinds of data and identify patterns and inter-relationships between them is vital for this field. This field offers many opportunities for a career in health care, research, and industry.
As a medical anthropologist, satisfaction in work is immense as you contribute to understanding and solving health problems and their origins, in totality, not just as a medical problem but a socio-biological one.
There is a need for medical anthropologists in the developing countries of Africa and Asia, where the roots of health problems lie in social abnormalities and instability. These countries are in need of professionals who can guide their governments in creating a sustainable, holistic, and effective health care program.
If you love working with people and have a knack for solving problems that are magnanimous in scale and complexity, and want to contribute to the better health of our society, this is the field for you.