MDs Could Learn From African Healers

CLEVELAND, – Traditional African healing techniques can complement western medical practice, according to a study in the current issue of the Annals of Internal Medicine.

Traditional healers tend to focus on the psychological, social, and spiritual factors contributing to illness, writes Dr. Mariana G. Hewson, a medical anthropologist with the Cleveland Clinic Foundation in Ohio. This focus can be very effective, she states.

I suggest that re-emphasizing these principles of healing in western medicine may broaden the scope and increase the satisfaction of modern healers, concludes Hewson, who studied the techniques used by six traditional African healers.

 At first glance, traditional African healing techniques seem to bear little relation to modern medical practice, she notes. To determine the cause of an illness, for instance, many traditional healers throw divining bones — ritual bones, shells and other objects — and look for diagnostic clues in the patterns the bones create.

But traditional healers also tend to focus on helping patients cope with emotional, social and other problems that can contribute to illness, she explains. They delve deeply into patients’ social and psychological lives, with questions such as, Do you want something you do not, or cannot, have? Do you have enemies?

In this respect, traditional African healers have something to teach western physicians, Hewson writes.

By placing greater emphasis on the emotional factors contributing to disease — as traditional healers do — modern doctors can better treat illness, she argues. Growing research suggests that stress, depression, and other psychological problems often contribute to physical illness, she points out.

The growing interest in alternative medical practice attests to a substantial interest in regaining humanistic medical perspectives, notes Hewson. Traditional medical approaches can be useful in engaging patients on interpersonal, psychological, and spiritual levels.

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