on August 19th, 2015 No Comments
As a PhD student in medical anthropology, and having come from a very “medical family,” pursuing an MD has been a kind of shadow-dream of mine. For a year or two in high school, I was convinced that neonatology was the path for me; now I’m a doula and research the culture of childbirth.
Some people do live the double dream, and I recently interviewed two of them: Jenny Miao Hua at the University of Chicago and Rosalind Franklin University’s Chicago Medical School, and Stanford’s Amrapali Maitra, both of whom are medical anthropologists pursuing PhD/MD degrees. (Amrapali has brought an anthropological perspective to Scope through our SMS Unplugged series.)
The two came to their joint degree from different sides: Hua was an anthropology student interested in Chinese medicine and the body, while Maitra was enrolled in medical school and became serious about understanding the social context of illness. Each intends to pursue internal medicine, and each, incidentally, has family connections in the site she chose to research. We talked shop for quite a while, and what I found most interesting was their thoughts on what anthropology brings to clinical practice:
Maitra: On the broadest level, anthropology gives you an immense empathy for your patients and allows you to see them as people. It sounds cliché, but with the focus on efficiency and evidence-based medicine that has taken over American biomedical practice, even the most kind and caring individual can lose [his or her] empathy. And the kind of empathy you get from anthropology is not just sympathizing with the person, but really understanding where they’re coming from, historically and because of their life position: why they live in a certain neighborhood or have a certain diet. It allows you to think creatively about what they’re able to do or not do in pursuing their own health.
Hua: With anthropological training, students understand the various ways pathologies are dependent on larger socioeconomic forces. As a practicing physician, the person who comes through the door is never a textbook patient, so within a very short amount of time you have to pick up on this deep history, and when you’re not careful you end up stereotyping and profiling. Anthropology brings a more nuanced way of thinking about patients: they’re not just uniform biological entities, but hybrids of biology, society, and culture.
Maitra: I’ve seen so many clinic visits where I can tell, as the anthropologist in the room, that the attending physician and patient just have completely different agendas. There are simple questions like those Arthur Kleinman has laid out, asking what about the pain bothers her, why she thinks she’s having it, what she hopes to get out of the encounter. I see some doctors use these, and their visits go so much better. They’re able to build an alliance with their patient that’s very therapeutic.
That’s anthropology on the individual level, but on another level it allows you to recognize that certain things are trends. It allows you to think systematically about different kinds of structural violence. For example, why is it that so many people whose occupation is picking strawberries come in with knee and back pain issues? Treating pain is not going to solve the problem. It’s about getting to the root of the occupational hazards of being a farm worker.