University of Missouri - Columbia.
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Posted 01.17.06

Health Education Efforts for Ethnic Minorities Often Have Wrong Focus, Says MU Research

COLUMBIA, Mo. -- Many ethnic minorities are at a greater risk to develop certain health problems and diseases, such as cancer. A University of Missouri-Columbia researcher says the link to this relationship lies in traditions.

"Humans usually receive three things from their ancestors: their genes, their kin and their traditions," said Craig T. Palmer, assistant professor of anthropology. "All three of these factors can significantly influence a person's health. There are many new studies on correlations between health issues and race, but race is not a real biological concept. Race is just a crude, and often inaccurate, way of examining the influence of genes, and it ignores the importance of traditions and kinship."

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Palmer believes that America is currently the least traditional society that has ever existed. Therefore, many Americans do not appreciate the importance of traditions and kinship in what are often referred to as ethnic groups. Traditional health behaviors are often at the root of certain groups of people having higher or lower percentages of disease than others and it is those behaviors that are taught and reinforced by families. This is a fact largely ignored by people charged with health promotion efforts, said Palmer.

"We learn from those we trust," Palmer said. "Learning has not traditionally been done in a classroom setting but is weaved into everyday experiences. A lecture approach to health information will never be appealing to people who have been raised in a rich cultural environment."

It is important to take advantage of the established structure of trust, according to Palmer. For example, one cannot go into another country or a Native American community, where people live more traditional lives, and expect to be immediately trusted. Palmer said taking the time to have discussions with the influential person in every situation and appreciating the traditions that are important to certain groups of people are crucial to improving health outcomes.

"After an operation, it is important to educate a family member on how they can help with recovery efforts," Palmer said. "In the United States, doctors may assume that someone with no spouse and no children has no family support. However, this person may have a very close relationship with a cousin or other distant relative and it is important not to make assumptions and discount the importance of relationships with kin outside the nuclear family."

Palmer co-authored "Human Categories and Health: The Power of the Concept of Ethnicity" with Kathryn Coe from the University of Arizona. The book chapter appears in Fundamentals of Cancer Prevention.



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