Intercultural Health in Ecuador: An Asymmetrical and Incomplete Project

Document Type


Publication Title

Anthropology & Medicine

Publication Date



College of Arts and Sciences


Department of Sociology


Intimate connections between culture and health are complicated by various understandings of the human body, divergent beliefs about reality and place-bound theories about healing. Health care systems in various countries are modified with a goal of creating ‘hybrid’ structures that make room for traditional practices within a dominant Western model. But genuine intercultural health care is elusive. In Ecuador, a country with great cultural and geographic diversity, the culture-health spectrum is broad and bumpy. This is especially evident in health care politics, education and administration. A constitution adopted in 2008 aims for inclusivity and equality by incorporating indigenous concepts of the ‘good life’ and ideals of an intercultural society. These new values and perspectives should be reflected in economics, law, education and health care. But these concepts confront a racial, political and economic history that has delegitimized indigenous systems of knowledge and belief. This paper contrasts ‘ideal’ and ‘real’ intercultural health care using case studies of the Tsáchila, an indigenous group in coastal Ecuador. The conclusion is that ‘ideal’ intercultural health care, as reflected in medical school education and clinical practice, is a superficial attempt at dialogue and understanding between indigenous and western medicine. ‘Real’ intercultural health care involves a more profound level of mutual respect and cross-cultural understanding that aims for symmetry in patient–doctor relationships. Insights from medical anthropology guide the authors through a critical analysis that addresses interculturality as a political issue and a political struggle that the Tsáchilas – like other indigenous groups – are losing.