Chronic health conditions are long-lasting (three months or longer) states that require constant medical supervision and might have minor or significant effects on the daily life of the carrier. Among them – are heart diseases, various types of cancer, stroke, respiratory and kidney diseases, diabetes, and many others. Millions of people worldwide suffer from one or multiple chronic diseases. The modern world is interconnected as never before, and tracking the medical conditions, the factors that cause them, and the risk groups became crucial for global well-being. Local economics, politics, social and religious beliefs, healthcare system have a lot of impact on how the diseases are handled, if at all. Also, understanding these factors affects the patients’ well-being drastically, helps avoid or, when impossible, learn to deal with stigmatization and traumas, which contributes to global health. Medical anthropology proved itself to be an effective tool for researching these factors altogether. The use of multiple qualitative methods and different approaches secures the reliability and productivity of the study. The collected data provides vital information that contributes to global well-being improvement.
One of the most concerning global pandemics is the metabolic syndrome (MetS) and diabetes pandemic, which started with the Native American tribes in the late 1960s and early 1970s. Mets were the ultimate response of the body to the cultural, political, social, and overall everyday behavior structure established at the time (Wiedman 595). As Native American tribes migrated from the rural to the urban areas, their lifestyle changed, resolving further health complications. The tribes changed their agricultural life to the cash economy and were forced to consume industrially processed energy-dense foods; people stopped walking much, preferring to drive cars and trucks. The weather seasonality and immediate natural resources lost their vital importance. All the changes seriously affected the development of chronic psychological stress as well. This side of the ethnohistory of U.S. Indian reservations, its’ local cultural aspects demonstrate the primary reasons and the source of the later global pandemic. The Kiowa, Comanche, and Apache were the first tribes to draw the community’s and nation’s attention to the actual problem of diabetes (Wiedman 598).
In his research, Wiedman used ethnohistorical methods to identify the chronic behaviors of the Native American tribes and analyze how they manifested in MetS. Starting with the historical background analysis, the author compares the local context to the global one. Metabolic disorders were originally primarily common for the rich people in Europe and the United Arab Emirates. Both of those shared the typical struggles of lack of movement, culturally obligatory social events that would lead to overconsumption of high-calory foods and beverages, and then to obesity and other health complications (Wiedman 605). Nowadays, all members of society are at risk of being affected by MetS. However, statistically, females are more often affected by the syndrome than men (Wiedman 604). The example of the Native American tribes shows how the changes of the economic, political, social, and other aspects resolved into including them in the risk group they couldn’t initially be a part of. It is also essential to recognize that the power inequality and the need to obey and drastically change the lifestyle over several years, resolved in the unexpected by the time way. The anthropological study recognizes the ultimately essential role of society and politics in this medical case. To address the MetS pandemic, Wiedman suggests admitting the importance of “the structural constraint and incentives that set parameters and pattern an individual’s decisions and behaviours” (606).
The example of people with multiple chemical sensitivity (MCS) also clarifies that social, cultural, economic, and medical contexts are vital in understanding global well-being. Unlike metabolic syndrome, MCS is one of the hidden disabilities. Moreover, even though it is a disability, not all states view it as one. This resolves multiple issues and strongly impacts the work and daily life, and social relationships of the patients. Americans with Disabilities Act does not protect people with MCS, so workers, who tried to bring their cases to court, could not win their points, even with the proof of being disabled. Everyday life is also filled with issues due to the people claiming their rights and not taking care of the overall community well-being, which resolves into a source of stigma. Massive brands – producers of various MCS’ triggers, do not want to lose their income, as well, so they also are the source of the encouraged stigmatization (Lipson 204)
Lipson conducted an ethnographic study to research the case of MCS in America. The author held 36 individual semi-structured, audio-taped interviews (205). The participants from different sexes, ages, and social groups came from different families (some were single, some lived with other people together). The author claims that due to the misinterpretation of the patient’s conditions, they often face misunderstanding from their relatives, friends, and other people, who are extremely insensitive towards the patient’s needs. Another issue is that most physicians do not understand how to treat or even what causes MCS, so people with MCS face gaslighting and discrimination, even in the medical facilities (Lipson 207).
Putting health, illness, and culture together might give a completely different perspective on the seem-to-be-familiar issues, which makes medical anthropology essential for global health issues. The anthropological research might be critical when trying to understand the origins of a disease or predict the possible outcomes and health complications of the implied political or cultural changes – like in the history of Native American tribes. It also impacts the way patients with hidden disabilities like MCS get treated by their government, society, and loved ones. Having a bigger perspective on the global and local cases of a chronic or any other kind of disease and their causes and triggers might raise the patients’ chances to find solutions for their problems. Understanding the culture and the possible stigmas would help find the right approach to the patients and help them provide relief with their diseases and disease-related traumas. Anthropologists also observe and examine how people around the world detect, define, understand, and respond to health conditions and issues and how they generally treat well-being topics. They observe and state the meaning and role of a doctor in a particular country, how comes the difference between various countries – why do some have massive outbreaks of some deadly diseases, and some not.
On the other hand, there are also some limitations connected with medical anthropology and its use in practical medicine – it requires additional time, sometimes measured in decades. Not every person with medical preparation knows how to conduct anthropological research – so there is a real lack of specialists. When scientists research a particular disease, they only examine a small number of patients at a time, and it is not always helpful in real-time. However, the limitations do not overshade the real impact medical anthropological studies have on researching chronic diseases, their stigmatization, and the improvement of global and individual well-being.
Lipson, Julien G. “Multiple Chemical Sensitivities: Stigma and Social Experiences.” Medical Anthropology Quarterly, vol. 18, no. 2, 2004, 200-213.
Wiedman, Dennis. “Native American embodiment of the chronicities of modernity: reservation food, diabetes, and the metabolic syndrome among the Kiowa, Comanche, and Apache.” Medical Anthropology Quarterly, vol. 26, no. 4, 2012, 595-612.