As the world becomes increasingly multicultural and mobile, combining cultural understanding with biomedical knowledge is growing in importance. Because of this, biomedical anthropology focuses not only on the molecular and cellular mechanisms of pathology and the transmission and dissemination of diseases but also the biosociocultural factors that affect health outcomes for both individuals and populations. It is an emerging discipline within anthropology and stems from anthropology’s generally holistic approach to provide a deeper understanding of the biocultural aspects that shape the genetic tendencies of certain populations as well as how populations respond to modern medical interventions.
Biomedical anthropology is also called Anthropology of Disease, but Biomedical Anthropology is quickly becoming the preferred term. Particularly over the past 15 years, anthropologists have been exploring and publishing articles about the health patterns of human beings. Current issues with the limited availability of jobs within Anthropology Departments at universities as well as the growing importance of global health have motivated physical anthropologists to expand beyond the traditional borders of the discipline to find answers to new questions about health outcomes. By adding cultural factors into consideration, biomedical anthropology seeks to improve health practices.
Both in the worlds of medicine and science, the discipline is considered a super-specialty of biological anthropology. More than just a multidisciplinary approach to health problems within populations, biomedical anthropology is a vibrant specialty that has much potential but also requires highly specialized training. Those who are interested in pursuing this specialty will find that programs prefer applicants who have backgrounds in biology, pre-medicine/nursing, public health, social sciences or anthropology.
Interested individuals who plan to work in medicine or public health outside of the western world or in immigrant populations can particularly benefit from training in biomedical anthropology. It can provide insight into the biological and cultural differences that shape health in diverse populations. For example, people in Southeast Asia or Africa tend to have views about disease and medicine that differ greatly from the western perspective.
Although the list is always expanding, a degree in biomedical anthropology can lead to opportunities for work in healthcare and healthcare administration, international/community health, government and non-governmental organizations, molecular and forensic anthropology, and epidemiology. While a handful of universities in the US offer a biomedical anthropology track within an anthropology or biology degree program, currently only SUNY Binghamton has a dedicated degree program in Biomedical Anthropology.
In any degree program focused on biomedical anthropology, students should examine the program thoroughly before making a decision about where to apply. A quality program in biomedical anthropology will train students on how to compare and contrast different models of disease, emphasize the importance of different stages of human growth, explore biocultural adaptation to environmental stressors, articulate the advantages of human diversity (e.g. skin color), and delve deeply into human disease interventions across a broad range of cultures. While the program should highlight cultural factors, it also needs to have a solid foundation in the biological sciences. As the number of employment and research opportunities in Biomedical Anthropology grow, so do the number of good programs in this dynamic specialty.