Traditional Medicine

Traditional Medicine and Healing – By Danielle & Sarah

Sickness in Ghana has been traditionally viewed as affecting ones entire being, including the spiritual and supernatural, therefore it takes more than just the physical to heal. Herbal medicine in Ghana and most African countries is a very popular method of health care (Darko, 2009). To illustrate just how common the use of traditional medicine is, the World Health Organization estimates that about 80% of the African population continues to rely on medicines derived from herbs (Tabi, Powell, & Hodnicki, 2006). Traditional medicine consists of health practices, approaches, knowledge and beliefs incorporating animal or mineral based medicines and spiritual therapies, either used on their own or in combination to treat, diagnose and prevent illness (Tabi et al, 2006). It is usually practiced by traditional or spiritual healers but most households have a collective knowledge in herbal medicine. This knowledge is mostly inherited or informally passed through generations by the oral story (Drako, 2009).

Over the past four years we have learned about traditional medicine and practices but have not had the opportunity to be fully immersed into a culture that practices it faithfully. Throughout this clinical in Ghana, we have encountered many people and patients who have shared their traditional medical knowledge and beliefs with us. We have noticed that there is a prevalent belief in a traditional tea that will help cure malaria, which is a disease that impacts the vast majority of the population. We also had the opportunity to partake in a nature walk in the Kakum National Park where we learned about different trees and their uses in traditional medicine. Our guide told us that the sap of certain trees is used to coax Guinea worms out of an infected person’s limb. She also taught us that a certain tree bark, when boiled and ingested, would help to treat asthma. It was very interesting to hear some of the traditional medical knowledge that is passed along through generations by story. We have also seen many independent practices on the road side that advertise a cure for anything you could imagine. In a country with scarce medical resources and strong inheritance of cultural tradition, it is not surprising that traditional medicine is so predominantly used.

In Ghana, herbal medicine is usually the first approach used to treat any kind of illness. Lack of access to medical facilities, poor roads/infrastructure and affordability of treatment are some main reasons for the prevalent use of traditional healers. The majority of the time, traditional healers are the first line of contact in the health care system in rural areas. The accessibility of healthcare in Ghana is illustrated by the ratio of medical doctors which are 1:20 000, where a traditional healer are 1:200 (Tabi et al, 2006). This plays a major role in healthcare decision making. When working in the hospital setting, we found that the majority of patients wait and use traditional medicine before seeking help at the hospital. We noticed that there were multiple factors influencing patient’s decisions to access traditional medicine. These factors include religion, traditional culture, financial situations, education, advice of family and friends and introduction of western systems (Tabi et al, 2006).

In the hospital setting, we found it necessary for a nurse to assess what traditional methods were used, in order to obtain an accurate history and provide appropriate treatment. Another important aspect is assessing the patients and families beliefs around what is causing the illness. For example, there is misinformation resulting in stigma around epilepsy and this is due to the beliefs or myths that it is caused by demons or is contagious. This causes patients to not receive medications that can improve their quality of life and instead traditional healers are used to cleanse their spirit. Therefore, in order to provide the best care for the patient and family, the nursing professional must use aspects of both traditional and westernized medicine. The family needs to be aware of the cause of the illness because many diseases that occur are preventable but are attributed to supernatural causes. The nurse also has the role to support the family in their cultural beliefs and practices which are not detrimental to the patient because when they return to the home environment traditional knowledge will be the first resort. This approach will help lead to the best care and outcomes possible. However, it is a major challenge for nurses to use the positive elements of traditional health resources and integrate it with modern medicine. Nurses also need to be well educated in common practices, the efficacy of traditional treatments and the potential for drug interactions. In supporting patient’s cultural beliefs, nurses are able to build rapport and trust with their clients which aids in the delivery of cultural competent and holistic care.

People’s health views are determined by their cultural beliefs and values. Even though people accept modern scientific medicine, they retain traditional concepts to give meaning to their health experience (Tabi et al, 2006). As we are entering an increasingly diverse cultural work environment we need to maintain awareness of how people’s beliefs impact their view of health and general wellbeing. This experience in Ghana has increased our awareness of the impact of culture. It has also put into perspective how important the acceptance of other beliefs and collaboration with patients is for a healthcare professional. Developing cultural competence is a major aspect of providing holistic patient care and we feel this has positively impacted our abilities as nurses. We feel so fortunate for the invaluable lessons and experiences gained from working with another culture, not only for the influence in our careers as nurses but in our daily lives as well.


Drako, I. (2009). Ghanaian indigenous health practices: The use of herbs. Retrieved from:

Tabi, M., Powell, M., & Hodnicki, D. (2006). Use of traditional healers and modern medicine in Ghana. International Nursing Review, 53(1), 52-58. Retrieved from: file:///C:/Sarah’s%20Files/School%20Work/NURS%20495/Use%20of%20traditional%20healers%20in%20ghana.pdf


Basic Human Need


Beyond being astounded by the resourcefulness of the Ghanaian people, one is left to wonder about how the happiness of those who live in this country is unaffected by the possessions that they have. When travelling to the village it was obvious to see the happiness of all the children. They were always smiling, laughing, playing, being entertained by small items such as rocks and sticks, as well as mesmerized by photography (courtesy of our abundance of digital cameras among our group). One of the reasons I was so taken aback by this was our Western culture. We are consistently trying to “keep up with the Jones’”, never finding complete satisfaction in our belongings and striving for a need for “new and improved.” I am not implying that either culture is right or wrong, but it makes one question basic human need and what this means when applying it to nursing practice.

Virginia Henderson was an influential nurse who identified fourteen basic human needs to base your nursing care around when applying the nursing process of assessment, diagnosis, planning, implementation and evaluation to patients (Dijkstra, 2012). They are as follows: breathe normally; eat and drink adequately; eliminates body wastes; sleep and rest; move and maintain desirable postures; suitable clothing; maintenance of body temperature; cleanly and well-groomed; avoid environmental dangers; communicates with others in expressing emotion, needs, fears, or opinions; worship according to one’s faith, work in such a way there is a sense of accomplishment; play or participate in recreation and finally learn, discover or satisfy the curiosity that leads to normal development and health (Dikjstra, 2012). The first nine of the fourteen needs are physiological, meaning they are interrelated to the physical health of the human body. The tenth and fourteenth are psychological, pertaining to the mental or emotional state of the patient. The twelfth and thirteenth are sociological, specifically referring to developmental goals of feeling accomplished and the eleventh being related to spirituality.

Henderson suggests that each of the fourteen components should be assessed for in the patient according to their ability to perform the component on their own (Kearney, 2001). One’s ability to function independently in the component shows a decreased need for intervention by the nurse (Kearney, 2001). For example; if someone can breathe normally, there is no need for intervention, whereas, if someone is gasping for air, they may need supplemental oxygen applied. Each patient’s care plan should be individualized by the nurse to meet their basic needs (Kearney, 2001). Now what does all this research have to do with my observations in the village?

While being in Ghana, I have often found myself wondering how those around me can be so happy with so little (in comparison with our materialistic culture in the West). I have come to realize in our fast paced life and society, we are often caught missing or skipping out on the small things. We are looking beyond basic human need for happiness and consistently striving to have more. At what point do we find ourselves being content? Henderson completed a thorough theory to which nurses are able to apply basic human need to patients, but how can one move forward yet another step and apply this to everyday life? This is something I will now strive for. I want to enjoy the parts of my life that are sometimes clouded with input from others, from media and from our culture. I am blessed to be able to say that I have always had the freedom to perform each of the fourteen components of basic human need without assistance and for the time being, I will be utterly grateful for this gift in itself.