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What is a Medical Anthropologist?

By D. Jeffress
Updated Mar 02, 2024
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A medical anthropologist researches many different aspects of human health and health care. He or she might attempt to explain why certain diseases affect a population or to describe how cultural standards impact medical practices in a given region. Medical anthropologists work for many types of institutions, including universities, nonprofit organizations, government health agencies, and private research groups. Their efforts often lead to the development of better educational and medical services for people in underprivileged societies.

The requirements to become a medical anthropologist depend on the type of work that a person hopes to do. Academic and independent researchers generally need to hold Ph.D. degrees in the specialty and gain several years of postdoctoral research experience before working in the field. Many medical anthropologists are also licensed medical doctors, able to provide firsthand services and help set up facilities for disadvantaged populations.

Most medical anthropologists split their time between conducting in-person ethnological studies and off-site research. A professional commonly spends several months or years living amongst a particular group of people, making observations and conducting interviews to learn more about the state of health and medicine in their community. A medical anthropologist might, for example, spend time with an African tribe that has historically been isolated from much of the outside world. He or she would try to find out what the members understand about disease and how they go about providing care for their loved ones. The anthropologist would learn about remedies for different illnesses, be they practical medicine, plant extracts, or ritual prayers.

The facts gathered by a medical anthropologist are valuable in understanding the similarities and differences in ideas about health care between cultures. In most cases, anthropologists do not stop at simply learning what groups do and believe. Relying on their knowledge of worthwhile medical practices, they offer their advice and support to help people better their situations. The medical anthropologist working with the African tribe may try to explain the true nature of diseases, help them learn how to take precautions against infections, and describe how to properly treat common ailments.

Anthropologists who work for government and nonprofit agencies are often involved in efforts to make modern medicine readily available to groups of people in need. They might build hospitals or temporary medical tents to serve a population, or work with local governments to develop better national or regional health-care standards. Medical anthropologists often enjoy their work immensely, and their services are commonly greatly appreciated by those they are able to help.

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