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Suburban Shaman

Medicine meets anthropology as one man traces his journey from rural South Africa to inner-city London, and from tribal medicine to life as a modern GP

Medicine meets anthropology as one man traces his journey from rural South Africa to inner-city London, and from tribal medicine to life as a modern GP

I predict that this book will become a medical classic.

It is written by a GP and anthropologist descended from a tribe of doctors in South Africa including a village doctor from two centuries ago. I can't think when I last read a more enjoyable medical book.

He grew up in a surreal mix of worlds, spending his summers in long-stay psychiatric hospitals (his father was a Government psychiatrist) and the rest of the year in Johannesburg.

He left South Africa to avoid being a ‘foot soldier of apartheid' and then left medicine, lured into social anthropology by the ‘exotic distractions' of London.

Financial necessity pushed him back into medicine; general practice was his final port of call after a spell as a cruise-ship doctor.

In all his descriptions of this myriad of worlds, the constant theme is the richness of humanity and his fascination with individuals.

He uses his anthropological (‘tribal expert') interest to look afresh at what it is that makes us function as doctors and how we relate to patients within their communities.

Using his experiences as both doctor and patient he reflects on the current move to specialise and subdivide and puts the case for the importance of generalism. He describes UK general practice as ‘the last bastion of old-style medical holism'.

He does not dwell on a golden past, acknowledges some of the advantages of ‘techno-medicine', but warns that we are at risk of treating ‘paper patients', the results of tests rather than the patients themselves.

He looks at the shamans of the title and heretically wonders if we have something to learn from the efforts of these traditional healers to focus on health and the whole person rather than just symptoms of illness.

He has written extensively throughout his career - ‘Write it down. Every detail' advised his uncle.

I found his writings thought-provoking and pleasurable to read.

His ideas may reflect GP coffee-room chat, just expressed more eloquently. Explore more by reading the book yourself.

Dr Clare Etherington

Rating: 5/5

Suburban Shaman

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