Beyond Prescriptions: Medical Anthropology Student at University of Oklahoma Helps Bridge Health Care Gap

Article excerpt

The prescription for healthier living and lowering health care costs has much to do with eating better, exercising more and managing chronic conditions.

But give that advice to a family that lives in poverty, has diabetes, depression problems and a parent on disability, and it's not so simple to carry out.

Steven Gomez envisions a day when that family would receive one- on-one help with more than their physical concerns when they go to a doctor's appointment. Gomez is working on his doctorate in medical anthropology at the University of Oklahoma, and his work - which examines societal and cultural issues affecting health - has introduced him to the reality of how many Oklahomans live.

"It's easy to tell people to stop doing that and start doing this," Gomez said. "But when you talk to people and visit their homes, there are endless reasons why they're not able to do that."

For his doctorate, Gomez spent time at Health For Friends, a Norman clinic that provides care for the uninsured. Health for Friends will soon begin making the concept of medical anthropology a reality. The clinic recently received a $50,000 grant from the Astellas Foundation to hire a licensed clinical social worker to help people with issues beyond their medical, dental and pharmacy needs.

Gomez's work illuminated the need for a social worker. By interviewing patients and visiting their homes to better understand their challenges to living a healthy lifestyle, he discovered that no simple fix exists. Some people are only able to go grocery shopping once a month, so buying fresh fruits and vegetables isn't feasible, he said. Others buy only what is on sale or food that they know will make them feel full because they can only afford to eat once a day.

The discouraging part of his work was that most people knew what they were eating was bad, but they felt powerless to do things differently.

"A single dad whose house I visited had a stockpile of food in his pantry," Gomez said. "He said, 'I don't shop with a grocery list for what I want; I shop for what's on sale. So if hot dogs are on sale, I'll buy a ton of them because my son needs to eat. I know it's not the best for us, but that's what's cheap and that's what will make my disability payment stretch for the entire month.'"

Other people bought healthy food for their children but deprived themselves to stretch their budgets, Gomez said.

Low income affected people in other ways, Gomez found. Diabetics often tested their blood sugar less frequently so they could save on the expense of test strips, and others even tried to stretch out their insulin, a potentially dangerous practice. …