Ethnomedicine explores the medical institutions and the manner in which peoples cope with illness and disease as a result of their cultural perspective. A broad field of study, ethnomedical study is a cumulative product of various fields of study, including ecology, epidemiology, and medical history. The study of ethnomedicine largely involves the collection of empirical data, especially that of the patterns of illness and treatment from cultures and peoples outside of the practicing biomedicine world. An important issue ethnomedicine addresses is the overlap between disease and illness and how one person may distinguish between the two based on cultural influences.[1]

As peoples are becoming increasingly connected and "culture" is growing on a worldwide scale, it is becoming more and more important and relevant to study the treatment and practices of other healing practices. Dr. Paula Irene Erickson of the Hariri School of Medicine offered a lecture on the growing importance of the study of ethnomedicine. She states that in order to keep out healing practices culturally relevant in our increasingly complex world, we must study the ethnomedicines of others.

Anthropological Example

An example of a practice which could be defined as ethnomedicine is the use of Ayahuasca by the indigenous peoples of South America. Ayahuasca is prepared by boiling various indigenous plants and is used to clean the body of worms and other intestinal parasites.

Although, the practice of ayahuasca to induce psychedelic effects in religious practice is not commonly thought of as beneficial to the healing process in the western biomedical world, one has to be able to understand the culture in which this treatment is practiced.

Related Terms

Alternative Medicine
Complementary Medicine


The Institute for EthnoMedicine. 2010.


  1. ^ Fabrega, Jr., Horacio, (1977) The Scope of Ethnomedical Science. Culture, Medicine, and Psychiatry 1(2):201-228