Prof. Rachel Hall-Clifford tackles global health inequality
As a medical anthropologist, Professor Rachel Hall-Clifford‘s work focuses on health inequalities and how access to affordable health care and knowledge about health differs along economic lines. She has previously worked on projects in Albania, China and Africa but now works in Guatemala researching treatments for childhood illnesses, specifically childhood diarrhea.
“My work in Guatemala focuses on inequalities in the delivery of primary health care, particularly for rural, indigenous populations,” said Hall-Clifford. “I look at how international and national-level health and development policies reach marginalized individuals and communities in a country with one of the highest levels of social and economic disparities in the world.”
At the end of a yearlong project in Guatemala, Hall-Clifford’s last phase of research was living in a remote, rural village for about two months. Fully immersed in the culture of the small village, Hall-Clifford observed the practices of sharing food and treatments for illnesses in that area of Guatemala.
“I have continued to work with the Guatemalan health system to improve delivery of services to rural areas,” said Hall-Clifford. “As Guatemalans like to say, progress is being made ‘poco a poco’ or ‘little by little’.”
While in Guatemala, she struggled to balance the principles of noninterference and cultural relativism that are essential in anthropology with helping people living in dire poverty. Hall-Clifford was not able to prevent children in her household from experiencing hunger and was later horrified by how desensitized she became to the suffering going on around her.
“There are certain human rights and ethical principles that should never be violated, and I felt that I really struggled with that. I know a lot of anthropologists do,” she said. “It is amazing how quickly things become normal. How drastic injustice and horrible human conditions just become a part of the landscape of where we are.”
Medical anthropology looks at health systems across all cultures, while striving for the betterment of health across those cultures.
“The world needs problem-solvers who are able to think critically to assess realities without overlaying their own preconceptions. I think medical anthropologists are uniquely poised to both understand a problem deeply and to work collaboratively with local populations on solutions.”