Health Care: Women from Ethnic Minorities often Neglected

Women from ethnic minorities who live in Western societies are exposed to substantial health risks. The reason is that modern health care does not always take cultural values into account. These are the findings of a continent-spanning project by the Austrian Science Fund (FWF) and identifies the lack of cultural and gender-sensitive health care and its consequences, based on the example of New Zealand and Austria.

A young Maori woman with her healthy twins - showing the success of the increasing consideration of cultural differences in New Zealand's health care system. © Use of this photo for editorial purposes is free of charge, subject to attribution: Dr. Binder-Fritz, vbk 2005

Up to the present day, special social and cultural needs have hardly been taken into consideration in health care facilities in the modern Western world. Those affected are mainly migrants residing in these countries and women belonging to ethnic minorities, who resist tests and treatment methods that do not correspond to their own living environments. Dr. Christine Binder-Fritz from the Institute for the History of Medicine at the Medical University of Vienna has ascertained that these women are especially prone to refusing preventive medical check-ups for cancer, thus jeopardising their own health.

Consequences for Health
Dr. Binder-Fritz made this observation during a 16-month stay researching the issue in New Zealand. Many women - especially the elderly - from the native Maori people in New Zealand do not visit a gynaecologist or any other doctor for fear of violating their cultural sense of privacy. It is inconceivable for them to bare intimate parts of their body to a doctor from a foreign culture.

The consequence is a serious threat to the health of these women. As Dr. Binder-Fritz explains: "The indigenous people, who are often socially disadvantaged, have a much lower life expectancy than the non-Maori inhabitants, whereby the higher mortality rate in Maori women is to be principally attributed to the extremely prevalent contraction of malignant tumours, especially breast cancer or cervical cancer, as well as illnesses like diabetes." These female-specific diseases often end fatally for many of these women, as regular check-ups are missed, which is also related to culturally specific perceptions of health and disease.

The experiences gained from the indigenous Maori people of New Zealand are not the exception but the rule in Western societies, as the project has shown. In Austria, problems related to the gynaecological and obstetrical health care of migrants are frequent as well. Dr. Binder-Fritz, who herself spent many years working as a medical laboratory technician in a gynaecological hospital while completing her studies in Medical Anthropology, was mainly able to observe areas of conflict in the field of obstetrics in Austria.

Diversity in Birthing
For ethnic women, the perception of an ideal birth can greatly differ from that of the Western world. Biomedical practices depend on one's culture, according to Dr. Binder-Fritz. "Many women are not used to being accompanied by a physician or having regular gynaecological check-ups throughout pregnancy. The fear - due to language barriers - of not being able to ensure their own interests or perceptions puts many migrants in a state of tension, which can have a negative impact on the health of expectant mothers and their unborn babies. Birth complications can be the result."

The public is growing more aware of the socio-cultural barriers of Western health care systems and the resulting fatal consequences thanks to this project. There has already been a change in thinking in New Zealand. Special health centres have been set up on the motto "With Maoris for Maoris". The centres guarantee adequate health care thanks to specially trained Maori nurses.

The results and findings gained within the framework of this Austrian Science Fund (FWF) project should now also serve as the basis for increased cultural and gender-conscious medical care in Austria - something that can only be made possible through the training and further specialisation of medical personnel and through the incorporation of ethnic minorities and migrants in the future, according to Dr. Binder-Fritz. A research project on this matter is in the works.

Scientific Contact
Dr. Christine Binder-Fritz
Medical University of Vienna
Institute for the History of Medicine
Währingerstraße 25
A-1090 Vienna
M +43 / 664 / 76 74 941
christine.binder-fritz(at)meduniwien.ac.at

Austrian Science Fund (FWF)
Mag. Stefan Bernhardt

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