How Does Understanding Cultural Values Improve Patient Care?

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PMY 380: How Does Understanding Cultural Values Improve Patient Care?

Session 380

I’m joined today by Dr. Cheo Torres to learn more about traditional medicine, cultural competency and how understanding both will make you a better physician.

Cheo is the Vice President of Student Affairs at the University of New Mexico. He also teaches a few classes there, specifically a summer class for students where he teaches traditional medicine.

Listen to today’s episode to learn how traditional medicine actually fits into the world of modern medicine and how you, as a future physician, can open up your mind to traditional medicine. 

So when patients come and see you, you’re more open and more willing to ask the right questions. Find out what your patients may be taking at home such as plants that may have consequences to other prescribed medications.

“At the end of the day, it’s all about learning about different cultures so you’d be able to better take care of your patients.” Click To Tweet

Meanwhile, be sure to listen to all our other podcasts on Meded Media. Check out our YouTube channel on Also, stay tuned for another new podcast coming up, which is Spanish for Premeds (still a tentative title!).

Listen to this podcast episode with the player above, or keep reading for the highlights and takeaway points.

[05:30] A Brief Background

Cheo is an administrator and a professor at the University of New Mexico. When he was an undergrad in Texas, one of his mentors invited him to travel to Mexico to learn about the culture and language. That one trip turned into 20 trips after he graduated.

On one of their trips, he was taken to a traditional healers festival where the town had hundreds of healers who call themselves as mediums. Cheo became an assistant to one of those healers. Three to four years ago, he even brought him to New Mexico and he was almost 90 years old.

Because of this, he started writing and studying traditional medicine. He worked with healers from Mexico, South America, and Africa. He has been teaching the class about this for the last 20 years.

He also offers free Coursera classes which can be helpful to premed students and medical students. They’re currently looking to having a certificate program. He would also be offering two Spanish courses on this topic at their university.

[09:20] Bridging the Gap Between Traditional Medicine and Modern Medicine

Many of the patients from third world countries who immigrated to the United States bring in their traditions with them. It’s a matter of respecting, understanding and appreciating the patients that come with them.

'For their own safety, we don't want the plant to interact with any modern allopathic treatments we give them.' Click To Tweet

In this regard, Chelo encourages future doctors to know their patients. There are a lot of patients who may come to you who are Spanish-speaking. But it could also be Arabic or Chinese or whatever.

Our country is becoming more and more diverse and it makes you a better physician if you understand the culture. 

At their campus, they teach medical Spanish which is a very popular course. Chelo has gone with medical students who have studied abroad, especially Mexico. And they all came back with a different appreciation of what they learned along with some basic medical Spanish.

[14:00] Questions You Can Ask Patients

If the patient doesn’t know the language, they’re most likely from another country that practices some traditional medicine.

One question is to ask them if they’re using any medicine plants. If so, which plants are they using? Understand that you don’t want those plants to interact with some of the medication they’re prescribed. Because some of these plants can be very strong.

'You can have a bad interaction between the plants and the medication your prescribe.'Click To Tweet

Other questions you can ask are:

What can you tell me about your practice of traditional medicine?

Have you worked with any healers? If so, what is it they’re doing?

Asking these will give you a better understanding of what to prescribe to patients.

Some of the traditional medicine is holistic – mind, body, and spirit. And some of the medications the patients are taking, even though they’re plants, can really be strong that could have interaction in the patient.

[15:45] Understanding Traditional Medicine and Why They’re Important

Chelo thinks that doctors should be able to ask patients to stop traditional medicine they’re taking if they’re being prescribed some modern medicine because you don’t want the patient to be harmed. The patients would understand this hopefully.

Some physicians attend Chelo’s classes or take his online courses to learn more about plants. In fact, other physicians let the patients continue to take the plant medicine if they’re shown to be effective and it’s the right plant.

A lot of the information we get from traditional medicine is word-of-mouth. And some people don’t read about the plants and they may even be taking something for the wrong usage. But now, people are beginning to do more research and continue to study the plants.

'We're beginning to do more research. We're beginning to study the plants. We're beginning to do more than any other time in the history of traditional medicine.' Click To Tweet

In addition to plants, they discuss rituals that have been practiced for years and why these rituals are effective. One example is laugh therapy. Physicians today say laughter is good because it produces endorphins, that natural pain killer. It suppresses epinephrine, the stress hormone. These are basic things that we now realize are good for you which healers have been using these for years.

They’re also now bringing back the traditional sweat lodges. A lot of people with behavioral health problems find those to be very therapeutic. You sweat out your toxins and you do ceremonies. You talk about your problems. They’ve built around three or four traditional sweat lodges in the Albuquerque area. And native Americans have been using these for years.

There’s also what is called energetic cleansing. It cleanses the body of negative energies a person may be carrying especially with posttraumatic stress syndrome. People who have head trauma and don’t know how to deal with it find this treatment to be very effective.

And they’re beginning to do more research on this at the medical school to show that some of these medications and therapies. If done correctly, they can be very therapeutic. 

[19:50] Overcoming the Skepticism Around Traditional Medicine

Cheo quotes Dr. Andrew Weil, the alternative medicine guru, who is a professor at the University of Arizona. He says that “If doesn’t hurt, it could help.” So what do you have to lose?

If you’re not insured in this country, it’s very difficult to get good treatment. That’s the fact.

The World Health Organization has endorsed traditional medicine in many countries. And they say it’s better to have traditional medicine than no medicine at all. 

'If done correctly, it could be very beneficial. And if it's done jointly with modern medicine, it can work with some people.' Click To Tweet

People want to know more about traditional medicine. Cheo’s classes have become so popular growing from 20 students 20 years ago to now over 200 students coming from all over the country for a two-week class in the summer. His Coursera classes are free and always have a good number of students.

For physicians, this is a great topic to understand. Culture is supposedly the best of everything. And this is the best of their culture. Even nowadays, a lot of medications are derived from plants. 

[23:08] How to Learn More About Traditional Medicine

If you want to connect with Cheo, email him at [email protected]. He will send a link to their free Coursera classes. The course consists of four classes.

  1. Healing with plants
  2. Healing the body
  3. Using energy for healing
  4. Global perspectives of traditional healing

You can also attend his two-week class every summer (July 13th to July 24th, 2020). Sign up for continuing education and spend two weeks at the University of New Mexico’s residence halls and dorms. They do hands-on training and they bring healers from Mexico, Guatemala, and other countries.

This is great for premed students who have more time than medical students. You can come in the summer for his class and even get college credit for it. Or register through continuing education.

Learn cupping techniques, do some sweat lodges in the evenings, and learn how to make medicines with plants. You’re going to do a botanical walk in Albuquerque with a top herbalist. And get the chance to meet different wonderful people from around the world who will be joining his class.

[26:13] Final Words of Wisdom

Learn about your patients. Find out where they’re coming from and why they do the things they do. Medical schools are very open now and they’re teaching future physicians cultural competencies.

They’re looking to take students to New Mexico to learn more about their medical programs and their patients and know more about traditional medicine.

'You become a better physician when you know your patients and where they're coming from.' Click To Tweet

Lastly, keep your patients healthier by teaching healthy lifestyles, diets, how to eat correctly, and how to prevent illnesses.

There’s not much difference between traditional medicine and modern medicine. The concept is basically the same. You want to keep your person healthy.

[28:30] Know More About the Atlantis Fellowship Program

Check out this YouTube video where I’m talking with Marichelle, a current medical student, and she talks all about shadowing as a premed. Marichelle got global shadowing experience in Portugal through an Atlantis Fellowship program.

Also listen to my interview with Lawson, the Executive Director of Atlantis, back in PMY 318: The Pors and Cons of Global Healthcare.


Meded Media

Check out our YouTube channel on

Check out Cheo Torres on Coursera

If you want to connect with Cheo, email him at [email protected].

Know more about Cheo’s Curanderismo class every summer.

Watch Cheo’s TedTalk Connecting Modern Medicine to Traditional Healing

YouTube video where I’m talking with Marichelle about the Atlantis Fellowship program.

PMY 318: The Pors and Cons of Global Healthcare


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