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What is Medical Anthropology?

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  • Written By: Todd M.
  • Edited By: J.T. Gale
  • Last Modified Date: 17 November 2016
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Medical anthropology is the study of how cultural, ecological, social, and historical forces impact the medicine used in a particular society, as well as how these forces impact individual health, the health of a particular community, and the environmental stability in a region. In order to reach accurate conclusions about the role of these forces in medicine and general health, medical anthropology draws upon a variety of academic disciplines, including cultural anthropology, linguistics, healthcare, and biology. Since the development of medical anthropology during the middle of the 20th century, the field has developed a specific training program for medical anthropologists and a body of literature that all experts in this field must familiarize themselves with. Applications have emerged for medical anthropology that have helped change how hospitals and primary healthcare services are introduced into communities while incorporating the impact of the complex cultural and environmental factors present in a given community.

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The academic discipline of medical anthropology emerged as a response to the preoccupation of the medical community in Europe and North America on clinical hospital training that was prevalent throughout the first half of the 20th century. Most doctors and other healthcare professionals abandoned all recognition of folk medicine and other forms of popular medicine during this time in favor of applying the same standard of medical care, regardless of the community of patients that physicians were treating. By the 1940s, European anthropologists and other academics began publishing papers on a topic that they referred to as the "anthropology of health" or the "anthropology of medicine." These papers resembled philosophical treatises on the role of anthropology in medicine rather than clear recommendations for a change in how the medical community approached patient care.

During the 1960s, doctors began to recognize the influence of regional and ethnic forces in healthcare and began incorporating some of the findings of early medical anthropologists into their medical practices. The Society for Medical Anthropology was founded 1967 by a combination of physicians and anthropologists. These professionals desired to collaborate with a goal of applying the academic theories and discoveries of medical anthropologists to patient care in regions throughout the world.

In subsequent decades, medical anthropology has become a formal field of study with master's degrees and doctorate programs at some of the most respected academic institutions in Europe, North America, Australia, and New Zealand. Medical anthropologists have led successful education programs in many nations that have inspired the eventual deinstitutionalisation of mental health hospitals and other facilities. Additionally, the cooperation between anthropologists and healthcare workers has led to the introduction of effective medical programs that are focused on improving quality of life and finding long-term solutions to local health problems rather than simply providing clinical care.

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