Does where we come from affect our proneness to certain diseases? After all, if our ethnicity can be seen through our genetics, and genetic factors determine likeability for diseases, the link between ethnicity and health should come as no surprise, right?
In this article, we’ll try to shed some light on this topic from a completely objective perspective.
For starters, we should acknowledge a simple truth: ethnicity and its real impact on biological matters is a sensitive subject. Only experts have come to face the fact that ethnicity actually has physiological consequences and therefore, might help to explain a certain predisposition to pathologies and disease.
This article will include information on the different impacts that ethnic factors have on health. Because when talking about well-being and healthiness your origins matter. In order to genuinely consider health risks that you might face, it´s fundamental to identify the ethnic group of belonging.
Ethnic aspects will inevitably be held in regard to those who deliver medical attention. Doctors must be aware of relevant cultural or even religious appreciations their patients hold, along with their family health history since sometimes they turn to be a significant source of information about disease prevalence and the access to health services.
What exactly is ethnicity?
Perfectly reasonable question. And, in a way, controversial.
Often in history, ethnicity has been associated with the concept of “race” when they are not the same thing. Yes, the world population can be categorized into different groups with specific genetic information that influence elements like hair, eye color, and skin, among others, but it has been proven that these characteristics have a minor relevance on assessing real susceptibility to diseases. Race has limited analytical use.
On the other hand, ethnicity is a much more complex concept that involves social, cultural, religious and historical variations. It is the result of shared traditions and a common social structure with particular customs and a specific sense of identity. More importantly, ethnicity is a subjective appreciation. Self-identification is crucial to determine the categorization of an individual within a group that has its own way of acting, thinking…living.
It is also necessary to note the difference with the idea of “ancestry” which refers to family background and origins. Ethnicity is about behavior and how a distinct idiosyncrasy may influence daily conduct and choices for those who belong.
Impact on Health
To get a closer look at the targeted groups that are generally considered when classifying ethnic categories, we´ll work with the following designation (understanding that some smaller groups are not mentioned but each of the following has subdivisions)
- American Indian
- Black or African American
- Hispanic or Latino
- Native Hawaiian or other Pacific Islander
There are several issues that raise the importance of ethnicity in health and preventive medicine. Here´s a list of those impacts with some examples of the specific ethnic groups.
Ethnicity affects health through…
Cultural behavior and attitudes
It’s vital to dedicate special attention to cultural differences when it comes to healthcare. When one’s culture is not assessed with respect, establishing trust gets more difficult, and personal well-being can be jeopardized if there’s no trust to search for medical advice.
Depending on the culture, there are some things that have a special repercussion on health: family roles and relationships, ideologies of marriage and gender, preferences for doctors of a particular gender, perspectives on sex education and unplanned pregnancy, among others.
Some cultures have a very strong rejectment for clinical examination. Some others defend a peculiar interpretation attached to the gender of a newborn son or the presence of physical anomalies. This might define an entire family´s security and preparation when facing certain events, and that is why it is so important to understand that there is no universal understanding of health or wellness.
What’s more, there are even different understandings of the concept of death and pathology. There are cultures where illnesses related to ideas like disgrace, dishonor, and wrongdoing are contemplated. This is how a set of attitudes and beliefs might affect the level of prevention of sickness and the predisposition to receive any treatment at all.
Communication and language differences
It may sound like a detail, but it isn´t. Those who are responsible for medical attention and special treatments should always ensure their patients a clear channel of communication so that anyone, regardless of ethnicity and provenance, gains access to the information necessary to take good care of their health.
Depending on the belonging to a certain culture, some patients might be resilient to discuss intimate matters with a physician, and establishing empathy can become harder when it is so critical to facilitate the comprehension of symptoms, treatment, and similar concerns.
Because of this, it is indispensable to count on a reliable translation service that´s available in case a professional in the area of health needs effective interpreter aid. Click here if you are in need of hospital interpreting services.
This one is predictable. We´ve all heard about cases involving blood transfusion and organ transplantation among other practices that find a barrier when meeting a patient’s beliefs. For one, Jehova´s Witnesses believe that receiving blood is forbidden and see organ transplantation as unacceptable. But this is just one of the most known cases.
It’s very common that a patient’s best interest finds itself in conflict with a religious belief. A good example is religions that demand a specific dress code that, in areas where there´s lower sunlight, can lead to vitamin D deficiencies.
And there are also effects on a personal diet. Hindus and Buddhists tend to be vegetarian, and Muslims and Jews restrict certain foods and food groups. Even though this doesn´t necessarily carry a negative impact on health, it is proof of the effect that personal beliefs exercise on nutrition. Some diseases and pathologies require a special diet and this might bring conflict when one’s religion forbids it.
There are some practices that are carried on unconsciously and could have serious repercussions on general health. The assumption that medical examination and suggested precautions are unimportant when visiting relatives in at-risk countries is actually dangerous. So is the assumption that recommendations regarding immunization are generally exaggerated and ‘over the top’.
Some ethnic groups (because of their history and cultural standards) have a skeptical eye on healthcare matters and this poses a great risk, not only to the specific group but also to those in contact with it.
Additionally, some cultures have had a tendency for noxious habits like smoking or excessive drinking. The former is significantly higher among migrants from East European countries, white and Chinese ethnic groups.
The impact of ethnicity on the socio-economic distribution of health is no novelty. It is also undeniable that the socio-economic status that some ethnicities face has had a considerable impact on their quality of living, which includes, of course, access to health care.
Disadvantaged minorities show a great gap among different ethnic groups. Just to name a few cases, White Gypsies are a group with, particularly poor health. Also, Bangladeshi women are 30% more likely to have long-term illnesses than white British women in London.
These studies raise the importance of securing an optimal healthcare delivery system that ensures all ethnic minorities are being properly treated. Furthermore, in societies with high ethnic diversity, it is crucial that the medical community is aware of the diseases and conditions that different sectors of the population might be prone to.
In some countries, the law requires that any organization which receives public financial assistance, such as Medicare, Medicaid, and federal reimbursements, must provide equal care to every patient. In the Unites States this means that limited English proficient patients and hearing impaired patients must be granted a professional medical interpreter, to assure communication is accurate, and proper care is provided. A trained interpreter in health services is not only the right thing to have, it has legal consequences if you don’t have it. See more of this in our free guide to Healthcare Language Services.
Ethnicity, and any genetic information that can be related to it, should not be ignored, but studied in-depth, so that those who are responsible for qualified medical care can consider all cultural, religious, even dialectic aspect that conditions the patient’s life.