Researching culturally appropriate health interventions in Peru

The Global Health Portal spoke with undergraduate student and blogger Kathleen Ferraro about her summer research project in Peru. Kathleen, an anthropology and international studies major and global health studies minor, spent the summer researching the use of the community health worker model by Peruvian community health organizations.

Tell us about your project. What inspired your work?

My research, though it evolved a bit throughout the summer, ultimately focused on how Peruvian health organizations facilitate culturally appropriate health interventions in indigenous communities using the community health worker model. As an Anthropology, International Studies, and Global Health Studies student, my research was chiefly inspired by my studies. Furthermore, as a student of global health who is not involved in any of the medical aspects of health work, I found research about impactful, culturally adept health interventions could be a foundation upon which I can contribute to the effective work of a health organization in the future.

How did your experience on the ground vary from your expectations?

There was less direct interaction with Quechua community health workers than I expected; however, this was an important limitation put in place to respect the typical timidity of the Quechua people.

What was your most meaningful experience abroad, and what did it teach you?

My most meaningful experience was when I was able to observe a meeting between staffers at the health organization I was shadowing and their Quechua community health workers from a particular rural community. The purpose of this meeting was to learn about the community’s health beliefs, with the eventual intent to incorporate these community-specific beliefs into the community health worker training program. This tuned me in to the importance of learning what your target population believes and acts upon–it is this information that is critical to design effective health initiatives, and it was exciting to watch the process unfold.

What was your most challenging moment, and how did you cope?

The biggest challenge I encountered was not a single moment, but the cultural, national, and linguistic barriers that were inherently constant throughout my stay in Peru. Everything I did or said necessitated some foresight, be that preparing to speak Spanish or making sure that what I was doing was culturally appropriate. Luckily, I expected this going into the summer and was thus prepared.

Did you encounter any cultural differences that required getting used to?

Though there were many cultural differences, the one that took the most getting used to was the culture of timidity in rural Quechua communities. Quechua culture involves a certain level of diffidence, especially when it comes to meeting strangers, especially strangers who are also from another country and culture. Accordingly, staff members at the health organizations I was working with mediated my interactions with Quechua people. That way, interactions would be non abrasive: I could gather the research I needed while the integrity of the organization’s relationship with Quechua culture could also be preserved.

Has your summer experience impacted your future goals and interests at Northwestern?

After learning much about how Peruvian health organizations facilitate culturally appropriate community health interventions in their target populations, I would love to apply this notion of cultural appropriateness to other community initiatives involving health and beyond. Every community-minded organization has a mission, and oftentimes that mission can be sabotaged by a lack of awareness about how to best work with any given population. I feel in-depth research can familiarize any given organization with the people they work with, resulting in more effective work overall, and it is this type of research that I would like to pursue in the future.

Do you have any advice for students wishing to conduct research in an unfamiliar location?

My best advice would be to go into your location with as much knowledge as possible–research the area, people, and culture before arriving so that at the very least, you have an idea of what to expect. I would also recommend always having a back-up plan. There were many times when things did not go as expected and alternative plans were necessary, and if you go into any given situation with a back-up plan then you can avoid unnecessary confusion or stress.

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