Blend of Western and Traditional Medicine Improving Healthcare in Chile


SEATTLE — Despite struggles over territory rights in Chile, the various cultures inhabiting the country are beginning to find mutual benefits of cohabitation when it comes to health. By improving healthcare in Chile, a bridge of peace and prosperity is forming that is creating a thread of friendship and benefits for all cultures involved, including those struggling with poverty.

As difficult as it may be for some of the indigenous people, such as the Mapuche, to accept help from people who are seen as unwelcome colonizers, they are gradually accepting and welcoming help, trade and Western medicine as complementary to traditional practices. At the same time, some non-indigenous Chileans are seeking and finding great value in Mapuche traditional medicine, which brings welcome income to the Mapuche community. Some Mapuche are moving to urban areas seeking more income and a less rural lifestyle, while many prefer adhering to their traditional culture and living in remote, rural conditions.

Red Cross Efforts Reach People in Remote Areas in Need of Medical Care

The Red Cross describes the Mapuche people in remote areas as living in “extreme destitution”, which is why the Red Cross sends mobile clinics offering healthcare for those living in “isolation”. Several thousands of Mapuche accept the help. The medical missions to reach such people are challenging, as many indigenous people live in areas with difficult terrain.

One such mission involves a vehicle equipped as a dental clinic that includes capacity for surgery, which is funded by the National Health Fund and the Spanish Red Cross. One of the Mapuche leaders, Joel Ankatel Caneo, told The Magazine of the International Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement, “It’s a big help having the Red Cross come here. Getting to town, which is 12 kilometers away, is complicated. There is only one bus and it’s expensive. So we usually walk, and that takes all day.”

The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) and the Chilean Red Cross work with similar programs offering help to the Mapuche, such as those living on the remote southern Chilean island of Nahuel Huapi. As the people living on this island experience, traditional medicine is not always capable of handling health emergencies. Such health needs are one of the reasons why many Mapuche are willing to overcome animosity, fear or mistrust they may have toward non-indigenous Chileans and Western medicine.

Since November 2007, the ICRC and Chilean Red Cross have been providing healthcare, first aid courses and disease prevention workshops on Nahuel Huapi and other remote Mapuche habitations. Services are offered, not forced, and often met with much participation and appreciation.

On Nahuel Huapi “health days”, the Red Cross turns the community center into a medical and dental clinic, then a Mapuche community member sounds an instrument to let others know the clinic is ready for patients. The doctors treat patients and provide medications. One of the Mapuche residents told the ICRC website, “I think it’s a really good system. We all benefit from it, because we all live in such a remote spot.”

Increased Appreciation for Both Western and Traditional Medicine Improving Healthcare in Chile

While many Mapuche appreciate, need and utilize the free medical help from the Red Cross, traditional Mapuche medicine is gaining popularity and earning income for the Mapuche community. Many Mapuche and non-Mapuche Chileans alike are seeking alternatives or additions to Western medicine, which they can find in intercultural health facilities that offer both Western and Mapuche services. Along with improving healthcare in Chile, this employment is helping reduce poverty among Mapuche communities.

In traditional Mapuche medicine, herbalists and machi (healers) tailor treatments and herbal concoctions to each individual patient. Some patients describe meeting with machi as therapy in itself, as Mapuche methods include a holistic approach in evaluating patients, often including emotional and spiritual discussions.

Many people treated by Mapuche healers report that machi can heal issues that pharmaceuticals do not, as well as issues that go undiagnosed or that Western doctors describe as psychosomatic. It is a common belief in Mapuche communities that Western doctors do not know how to diagnose or treat people affected with evil, yet machi can recognize and heal people affected by “evil eye” and other “spiritual diseases”.

While it is not common for Western physicians in Chile to refer patients to machi, some Western psychiatrists do. The Mapuche healers often refer their patients to Western doctors, but only for issues such as advanced cancer, heart disease, severe trauma and infection.

Combined Clinics Use Both Forms of Medical Care to Better Serve Patients

The meeting of the differences between Mapuche medicine and Western medicine is improving healthcare in Chile, as the government and indigenous leaders form intercultural facilities that coexist to offer both conventional and traditional treatments. For example, Mapuche healers practice traditional medicine in a government-funded free clinic side by side with a conventional hospital at the Intercultural Health Complex in Araucania, Chile. The traditional medicine clinic does not handle severe illnesses, births or surgery, while the conventional hospital does. Some patients report that traditional medicine works better than conventional treatments for certain issues such as arthritis, depression and spiritual matters.

Overall, with the help of organizations such as the Red Cross bringing healthcare to poor people in Chile’s remote areas, bonds of friendship and trust are forming between cultures and health is improving. In urban areas, increasing numbers of intercultural health facilities that offer patients both traditional and conventional medicine are improving healthcare in Chile while also reducing poverty for the Mapuche through increased income and better health.

– Emme Leigh
Photo: Flickr


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