Medical anthropology is the study of human health and disease as they are influenced by one's culture and society. It is the study of a culture's attempt to withstand morbidity and circumvent death. Anthropology, or the study of human beings in general, is a broad field of science that includes the natural sciences, social sciences as well as the humanities. Medical anthropology examines the social structure and implications of medicine as they pertain to diagnosis, treatment and prevention of disease. Thus, the medical anthropologist will study patterns of disease from different populations, analyzing the relationship between epidemiology and behavior while defining the molecular, physiological, cultural and environmental variables that contribute to a medical problem.
The applied anthropology of medicine can be defined as the merger of the biomedical study of disease with the sociobehavioral ramifications of disease. It results from the fact that the cumulative effects of a medical illness are what people ultimately experience, and that experience is colored by the patient's background, behavior and beliefs. Thus, whereas a biologist determines that tuberculosis is caused by the pathogen mycobacterium, the behavioral scientist will determine that tuberculosis is a result of poor nutrition and low socioeconomic status. Medical anthropology mandates that these diverging models can be included in one unifying paradigm.
The study of medical anthropology can be divided into five major fields. One field is the study of the development of health care and medical knowledge systems. The way in which patients are treated in medical social systems and the way in which health care practitioners are trained vary from one culture to the next. In many cases, there are regional subvariations within the same society. Health care and medical training in a rural region can vary substantially from an urban area within the same region. There are also variations in the way in which public health, primary, secondary and tertiary health care are stratified and administered.
The doctor-patient relationship is another field of medical anthropology that is critical to assessing health care quality. The medical perspective of the patient, in particular the way in which the patient views the physician, has great bearing on patient compliance and outcome. Moreover, the ability of the physician to communicate with and assist the treatment and recovery is paramount to a desired outcome. Issues within the field of physician and patient interaction include the mores of standard doctor-patient interaction and the fundamentals of bioethics (i.e., patient privacy, human dignity and other factors).
Cultural diversity is another important aspect of medical anthropology. Health care workers require training in the heterogeneity of human experiences: socially, culturally and linguistically. Cultural diversity extends past race, nationality, gender or religion to include economic status, educational barriers and belief systems. The role of medical anthropology is to build the framework for a dialogue between practitioner and patient that can bridge these differences.
Medical anthropology also includes the epidemiology of disease as it is studied in light of social, environmental and biological factors. This aspect of the field examines the relationship between sociocultural differences and the onset, spread, treatment and recovery from disease. These factors have ramifications for both the individual and for the community as a whole.
The fifth major field of study is the impact of modern technology on non-Western or native medical systems. Cultural systems, such as health care, evolve similarly to somatic systems, and revolutionary change in one region of the globe may not necessarily translate to a different region. Technologies that are innovative and widely embraced in one region may be mistrusted and resisted in another. Key examples include changes in sanitation practices and the microbiological basis of infectious disease, as well as the importance of the effect of diet on metabolic diseases.
In all, medical anthropology is one of the more multidimensional branches of applied anthropology, addressing health care systems as living, evolving entities that incorporate vast but interrelated disciplines. It views the patient not only as the amalgamation of his or her biological and cultural components, but also takes into account the social and environmental universe in which the patient plays a part.