The Failures of Western Medicine

Hayley Serpa/Staff Writer

When most people think of medicine, the first image to pop up in their mind is that of doctors in neatly pressed white coats and sterile, cold hospital hallways. There is always an incoming emergency and an exact diagnosis for the case. This stereotypification of western medical practices is most exemplified with the popularity of Grey’s Anatomy, an American tv show that depicts the life of cookie-cutter doctors in neatly pressed white coats running around in sterile hospital hallways. 

Yet, this assumption of medicine is not an accurate representation of what the medical profession actually encompasses. This skewed view is a product of the increasingly ‘Westernized’ and Eurocentric society we form part of. Our own cultural assumptions of what medicine looks like or–more accurately–how we believe it should look, limits our true understanding of medicine and the effectiveness of our medical practices. Many people seem to forget that before Western medicine and the commercialization of medical practices for profit, other medicinal remedies and beliefs, like those shared by indigenous groups and other ethnic/racial minorities in the Americas, had been used long before. 

Widening our definition of medicine to include non-Western practices of healing helps in fighting harmful assumptions and associations, but there is still far more work to be done. The arrogant Eurocentricity that is inherent in Western medicine and most of those who practice it (or hope to practice it) can be clearly seen in the various cases in which Western medicine has failed vulnerable groups both within ‘developed’ and ‘underdeveloped’ or ‘developing’ non-Western countries. 

Widening our definition of medicine to include non-Western practices of healing helps in fighting harmful assumptions and associations, but there is still far more work to be done

One of these horrific failures occurred in Peru during the corrupt second presidency of Alberto Fujimori in the late 90s. He began a five-year family planning program in the remote Amazonian region of Peru, which was based on similar family-planning programs used by countries like India. With little consideration given to the traditional indigenous customs of his Amazonian citizens, who greatly value and desire large families, Fujimori proceeded to sterilize over 272,000 women and 22,000 men. Over 96% of the female victims did not consent to their being sterilized. Gloria Basillo, one of the victims of Fujimori’s reign of terror, describes being tied down and blindfolded by health officials who sterilized her nonconsensually. 

This massive sterilization campaign was spurred by the government’s racist and demeaning cultural assumptions of Peru’s natives, which originated from the colonial period which established the sistema de castas, which classified individuals based on their bloodlines; the more Spanish blood they had, the higher up in the caste system they would be situated. 

The government’s reason for the forced sterilization of indigenous women derived from its perception that native women “bred like rabbits” and are unable to use other contraceptive methods. This racist assumption would directly lead to the wrongful, and nonconsensual, usage of Western medical practices, like sterilization, on one of the most vulnerable groups in the world; the indigenous woman. 

Using such an extreme case of abuse and the failures of Western medicine in Peru helps us think of how cultural assumptions held by medical professionals in the U.S. might affect vulnerable groups inside our own borders. This is especially true for black and indigenous women within the U.S., who are two to three times more likely than a white woman to die in childbirth. That there still exists such high racial and ethnic disparities, despite continued innovations and improvements in Western medicine, shows us that there is something wrong with Western medicine, or at least in those who practice it. 

Embarrassingly, one of our own FIU pre-med students is the culprit of a viral Twitter video of her twerking while saying the n-word. Her mocking nature, as well as the hate and ignorance seen in the video, shows the reality of who our future medical professionals will be and are. If people like these, with obvious insensitive and racist cultural assumptions, are allowed to continue their education at FIU, this will only continue the cycle of inequality and failures that has historically been seen in Western medicine. 

While Western medicine has provided us with life-saving treatments that would have been unheard of over fifty years ago, we must also not blind ourselves to its failures. The cultural assumptions that dictate who receives medical treatment and what treatment they receive reveals that modern, Western medicine is not as pragmatic and scientific as it presents itself. Just like all other aspects of society, it is influenced by Eurocentric cultural assumptions that victimize historically vulnerable communities.


The opinions presented within this page do not represent the views of PantherNOW Editorial Board. These views are separate from editorials and reflect individual perspectives of contributing writers and/or members of the University community.

Photo by Hush Naidoo on Unsplash

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