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EXPERT AVAILABLE: MU Expert Discusses Influence of Culture on Health

December 5th, 2011

Story Contact: MU News Bureau, 573-882-6211,

The views and opinions expressed in this “for expert comment” release are based on research and/or opinions of the researcher(s) and/or faculty member(s) and do not reflect the University’s official stance.

By Kate McIntyre

COLUMBIA, Mo. – Michael Hosokawa, professor in the Department of Family and Community Medicine in the University of Missouri School of Medicine, says that by examining the influence of culture on behavior, knowledge and attitudes, public health professionals can more effectively improve individual and community health by tailoring education and intervention efforts.

“People from different cultures have different beliefs concerning health, nutrition, exercise – even the origin of diseases,” Hosokawa said. “As public health practitioners, we need to be aware of how culture influences behavior. We need to be more sensitive to our own biases and question how our cultural beliefs affect others.”

This spring, Hosokawa will teach a new class titled “Topics in Public Health: Cultural Aspects of Health of the Public” through the MU Master of Public Health Program, which is working to increase students’ cultural awareness through classwork, internships and study abroad opportunities.

Hosokawa’s class will offer insight into how a person’s ethnicity or race, shared experiences, language, values and traditions influence health beliefs and practices not only on a broad, global scale but also on a local level because of the heterogeneous makeup of communities. For instance, residents in the same community often have a wide range of cultural backgrounds that affect their beliefs about behaviors such as medication adherence, tobacco use or family planning practices. Additionally, Hosokawa will introduce topics such as the origins and influence of individual and group health beliefs, behavior change, stereotypes and the ethics of change, including whether people freely choose to change or are coerced into cooperating by law.

In addition to learning public health theories, students will gain practical experience by participating in an intervention in a fictional Missouri community that is regressive in its public health and sanitation practices. Using their knowledge of varying cultural health beliefs, students will devise strategies to change health-related behaviors, despite citizens’ resistance to what they often view as unwanted interference.

“Public health professionals are change-agents who come in from outside,” Hosokawa said. “Until they understand the cultural group that they’re dealing with, they’re not going to make any progress. You can’t tell anything about a person just by looking at them. You need to know his or her story.”

Studying cultural values and biases not only benefits public health students, but also everyone whose work affects the lives of citizens in a multi-cultural society, such as journalists, politicians and policymakers, among others.