Purdue News

November 8, 2006

Professor: Preserve culture, beliefs when promoting health to India's rural residents

Mohan Dutta
WEST LAFAYETTE, Ind. — Improving a person's health in India, or in any country, needs to start with an understanding of culture, says a Purdue University health communication expert.

"India is certainly growing as a global center for economics, education and business, but parallel to this growth is an increasing gap in health care for India's rural residents," says Mohan Dutta, associate professor of health communication who is studying the health beliefs of low-income rural Indians. "Today's health-care technology that is used to communicate and to treat people is amazing, but there are many cultural barriers that prevent some rural groups from accessing these benefits."

Dutta is coordinating a large multi-site study that is examining health beliefs among low-income residents of India. One group being studied is the Santali people of Midnapur, West Bengal. They are low-income, and many of them are field workers.

"When members of the Santali community are asked what they believe constitutes good health, they say receiving their daily meals of rice and water leads to good health," Dutta says. "Their struggle for good health is embedded in the daily struggle for food. Technology, progress and policy need to absorb cultural values and concerns to make a difference for marginalized communities.

"This culture is caught between modernization and their traditional way of life because they are struggling with the forces of assimilation and resistance," says Dutta, who also speaks Bengali. "Health policies pay minimal attention to the Santalis, so it's crucial that their health concerns and way of living are centralized in ways which we discuss health policies."

For example, rural residents often seek health care from local traditional healers, Dutta says. Yet, many of these patients want to visit hospitals, which are often unreachable because of transportation issues, such as the lack of a vehicle or, in some cases, impassable roads. The long waits at a medical center also could result in lost earnings or a lost job. But at the same time, even though "hospital medicine" may be preferred, many Santalis say the local healer is more trustworthy, Dutta says.

"The role of communication infrastructures should focus on making sure all voices, even the marginalized, are heard," Dutta says. "Using a more culture-centered approach can address some of these obstacles."

A culture-centered approach focuses on using more traditional communication forms, Dutta says. For example, he has been involved — as both an organizer and performer — with "Folk Forms of Communication as Tools for Social Change" since 1996. The group uses folk performances — songs, poetry and dance — to raise awareness about health issues.

"These communication forms are tailored to the Santalis' cultural values and beliefs," Dutta says. "But no matter how successful this form of communication is, we still need the political and economic structures in India to change."

Dutta's previous work in the United States analyzes how health information is portrayed in mass media sources, such as newspapers and public service announcements. His work has shown that many low-income Americans, who are often considered the unhealthiest, are not likely to access health information in these common formats.

His current work in India is part of "Access of Community Members to Health Care Resources in Rural Bengal: A Subaltern Perspective." Funding for this project, which began in 1997, is from the Department of Communication and the College of Liberal Arts. Analyses of Dutta's Santali study are published in Qualitative Health Research, Communication Theory and Health Communication journals. He received the Lewis Donohew Outstanding Health Communication Scholar Award for this work.

The Department of Communication is housed in Purdue's College of Liberal Arts.

Writer: Amy Patterson Neubert, (765) 494-9723, apatterson@purdue.edu

Source: Mohan Dutta, (765) 494-2587, mdutta@purdue.edu

Purdue News Service: (765) 494-2096; purduenews@purdue.edu

Note to Journalists: Mohan Dutta, associate professor of health communication at Purdue University, received the Lewis Donohew Outstanding Health Communication Scholar Award for his work on the health of rural populations in India. In this work, he argues that improving a person's health in India, or in any country, needs to start with an understanding of the local culture.


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