Evaluating the cultural differences in how people perceive health and medicine, a panel of students and faculty spoke about the ethics of international medicine in a panel hosted by the Foundation for International Medical Relief of Children on Wednesday.

Student panelists shared their experiences from abroad, discussing the challenges they faced as healthcare providers in foreign countries.

“It’s more about targeting the populations that don’t seek healthcare or feel the need to see it,” said Vineet Vishwanath ’18, who participated in two FIMRC trips to El Salvador and Peru, aiding health campaigns in rural areas to educate and assess people’s health with basic, vital checkups.

FIMRC’s objective is to provide access, education and participation in healthcare to global communities, with a focus on preventative care. Students had the opportunity to shadow clinicians and run education campaigns with children to teach “things that we take for granted, … such as washing your hands, brushing your teeth, … knowing what foods are healthy and unhealthy,” said Vishwanath.

However, Vishwanath emphasized the idea of cultural sensitivity, making it clear that their service made sure not to impose “Western healthcare” but instead to simply provide exposure for individuals to become aware of treatable ailments. Vishwanath particularly cited instances of treating individuals with high blood pressure and diabetic blood glucose levels, who were then referred to professionals that could provide further help.

Ariel Lee ’18, president of FIMRC, attended the same trips and said her main takeaway was that “change isn’t going to happen overnight. … Education isn’t instantaneous and often takes investment.” Lee said the organization seeks to empower the communities and create a sustainable model by teaching communities how to value and take their health into their own hands.

Michelle Yan ’19, who volunteered in Haiti for YourStory International, agreed, adding that a lot of the time just teaching people and showing them that there are easy changes in diet and hygiene can promote healthiness.

However, while education is very important, Megan Rose ’18, who participated in a Global Brigades trip to Honduras, emphasized the assessment of cultural differences. “It’s really easy to think that you may be helping and actually be hurting, … because who’s to assume that we’re right?” she asked.

According to all four student panelists, it was evident in the communities they visited that Western healthcare was stigmatized and often only seen as a last resort due to lack of accessibility and exposure.

Prof. Anita Hannig (ANTH, HSSP) and Prof. Cristina Espinoza (Heller) followed up on the issue, highlighting the importance of respecting medical interpretations while abroad in other countries, especially nations whose experiences with colonialism and postcolonialism may give them a negative impression of adopting Western ideals of medicine and practice.

“Cultural difference is a big barrier, not only for the practical interaction between patient and provider but [for] the whole of what is medicine, what is illness, who is healing,” said Espinoza, highlighting that health, diagnosis and medical treatment can easily become lost in translation among different cultures.

“The perceptions of health and healing aren’t universal,” Hannig added, emphasizing that traveling providers sometimes have blinders on during intercultural interactions and must be careful of perpetuating the notion that all Western medicine needs to be adopted.

Individuals may have their own set practices of medicine in place, or may not be interested in health care at all, and it is important to be cognizant and humble enough to think that one’s way of practice may not hold all the answers, said Hannig.

“We sometimes tend to see culture as kind of an obstacle in the way of proper medicine or proper education. ... We should actually see culture as something that illuminates how people think about their health [and] how people think about their bodies, rather than an obstacle overcome with education,” Hannig said.

Espinoza added, “Use culture not as a problem but as a doorway.”