Going Global: Resident Studies Ayurvedic Medicine in India

Dr. Gala Godoy Brewer in a clinic office with colleagues from Banaras Hindu University

Medical residents gain clinical experience rotating through specialties like general medicine, emergency medicine and critical care. But they don’t often have an opportunity to learn about medicine practiced in a culture unlike their own.

Gala Godoy Brewer, M.D., a third-year resident in the University of Miami Miller School of Medicine’s Department of Internal Medicine, took advantage of that opportunity last year when she spent one month in Varanasi, India, at Banaras Hindu University. The future gastroenterologist observed and participated in Western medicine and traditional Indian medicine at the School of Ayurveda. Among the oldest known medical systems, Ayurvedic treatment is a holistic approach to health that focuses on natural products like plants, as well as diet, exercise and lifestyle.

Dr. Brewer’s experience in India was through the Global Health Pathway offered by the Miller School’s Global Institute. Residents learn aspects of global health, policy and cultural competency before assignment to global health experiences at the National Institutes of Health, in a U.S. hospital or abroad.

“I wanted to go somewhere to learn how a different culture approaches medicine,” Dr. Brewer said.

India, she added, was perfect because many people there rely on traditional approaches. Banaras Hindu University is one of the few in India that links allopathic and Ayurvedic medicine. The departments are next to each other. Patients can choose one or both.

“The integration was super interesting to me because I could see a culturally competent approach to Ayurvedic medicine for patients who want it, and also allopathic medicine, like we are used to,” said Dr. Brewer.

Dr. Gala Godoy Brewer at Banaras Hindu University
Dr. Gala Godoy Brewer immersed herself in Ayurvedic medicine at Banaras Hindu University.

She was impressed with the Ayurvedic rotations.

“Ayurvedic has approaches like in OB/GYN,” she said. In the allopathic department, “they do C-sections, but the Ayurvedic post-care is from plants or other things. It’s a very good integration.”

The Ayurvedic approach goes beyond symptom treatment, as well.

“With Ayurvedic, there is the medical part and the spiritual part,” Dr. Brewer said. “They take good care approaching lifestyle for patients.”

Lifestyle recommendations may be anything from moderate exercise to taking ginger every day for three months. The goal, Dr. Brewer said, is to balance body, spirit and emotions.

Early Exposure to Indigenous Culture

Growing up in rural Venezuela, Dr. Brewer witnessed poverty up close. She saw people who needed doctors and learned about Indigenous cultures from her grandfather, Charles Brewer-Carias, an explorer, naturalist and author.

“My grandfather lived with Indigenous communities,” said Dr. Brewer, whose first experience with Indigenous medicine was on a trip with her grandfather. “He has written many books about anthropology.”

As a high school student, Dr. Brewer volunteered to help children from a rural area with their homework. Next door to their school was a small community clinic.

“They seldom had doctors,” she said, “I saw there was a big need for health care in that community. I feel that I can give some of myself to those people through health care.”

Western culture, she said, has made great strides in expanding its understanding of alternate approaches to health, but the work is not done.

“We can bring the best health care to Indigenous people while respecting their beliefs,” she said. “I believe in medicine, but I approach it with respect and cultural competency.”

Dr. Brewer is planning a second global health rotation at a primary care clinic in Antigua, Guatemala.

“I wanted to be in South America, somewhere that has a big Indigenous population,” she said. “I will be practicing mostly Western medicine, but I want to see a low-income, rural community clinic’s approach to health care. I want to serve Latin American communities and understand health care mistrust and hesitancy. I want to see how they approach it there.”

Tags: Global Institute for Community Health and Development, internal medicine residency, resident training