Views from the ANThill: Bringing Traditional Medicine into the Hospital

A Q'eqchi' Maya healer works on a patient whose soul
has left his body, leaving him listless and unable to eat.
Photo by douglas reeser.
by douglas reeser on July 13th, 2012
It was 2005 when I began my graduate training in anthropology. I had decided to get more serious about my interest in indigenous issues, and follow a path towards understanding traditional and indigenous knowledge in its many forms. It was then that I came across Joseph Bastien's Drum and Stethoscope, a book that details efforts in Bolivia to integrate traditional medicines with the biomedicine practiced in the nation's hospitals. This is a book from 1992, and 20 years later, we have yet to see significant advance in such efforts.

That's why I was excited to see an article from the BBC News about such efforts in Ecuador. Irene Caselli reports for the BBC on a new project in Riobamba, a small town in the Andes Mountains.  Riobamba's Alternative Andean Hospital is a private health center that has integrated Western and Andean medicine into its services. It's a place where traditional healers practice their unique services along side of biomedical doctors, where the two traditions are allowed to complement each other in an open and direct way.

Here in Belize, where I have been studying the health system for the last year, the State provides free healthcare through public clinics and hospitals. In the south of the country where I am working, traditional medicines remain active and fairly popular. Largely because of international pressure from organizations like the WHO, the Belize Ministry of Health is working on the formulation of a national policy on traditional medicine. It is not yet clear if they will move towards a partnership or integration of some sort, but it is at least promising that they are considering such issues.

One of the hurdles facing traditional healers in such contexts is a general misunderstanding of their practice. Such false impressions come through in a number of ways. For example, in the BBC article, Caselli explains of traditional healers in Ecuador: "They receive training from their elders to learn about herbs and their properties but this is, of course, not comparable to the years of studying that doctors undergo." In my experience from studying the topic for the last 8 years, this statement is patently false. It misrepresents the training that many traditional healers must go through, and further serves to diminish their abilities and status compared to biomedical practitioners.

Caselli would be more accurate if she described the training of traditional healers as being simply different from that of biomedical doctors. In most cases with which I am familiar, traditional healers undergo training in the practice over several years before they are permitted to practice. Even after they are allowed to practice, most healers continue to build on their knowledge base throughout their lives. Training leaves them with multiple diagnostic techniques, a database of treatments that often includes hundreds of individual plant species and hundreds more combinations and blends of plant formula, not to mention a host of different treatment techniques, including massage and psycho-spirtiual therapies.

This lack of understanding of the depth of training and knowledge of traditional healers is widespread. Here in Belize, misunderstanding exists among some members of the community, it exists among service providers at the clinics and hospital, and it exists among some at the Ministry of Health. The further along I get in this research for my dissertation, the more this looks like a long term project, but one that I hope results in some form of official integration of traditional medicine into the national health care system. Such a turn of events would aid in maintaining and even revitalizing traditional practices that have become increasingly threatened as the years go by.
Print Friendly and PDF


  1. very interesting to hear about the training that traditional healers go through. i particularly like your distinction between the training not being inferior but just different. there often seems to be a need for people to place difference hierarchically rather than laterally.

  2. Anonymous2:43 PM

    Awesome photo. Would love to see a Picture Show of your healer photos... :p

    1. I agree, that would be a great idea. Unfortunately, there are issues with publishing these kinds of photos. Primarily I could not publish photos with identifiable patients out of privacy concerns. Healers have generally given me permission to use photos of them, but I have chosen to limit how I use them.

      Still, thanks for your interest and compliment!

  3. Jason4:42 PM

    One of the challenges will be convincing doctors, some of who believe so strongly in biomedicine, they will have trouble accepting the herb and methods of the traditional healers.


Having trouble leaving a comment? Some browsers require acceptance of 3rd party cookies. If you leave an anonymous comment, it may need to be approved.