The Unique Connections Between Arab Americans and Healthcare

Updated on April 28, 2023

With National Arab American Heritage Month upon us, it is imperative to reflect upon the impact our demographic has had on all facets of our society. One area Arab Americans have made and continue to make significant contributions in American society is in our healthcare and medical research system, areas that have been intertwined with and influenced by Arab civilizations for generations.

Every time you take your child to the pediatrician, visit your gynecologist, or check into a hospital to undergo a surgical procedure, it’s likely you are benefiting, in some way, from the work of medieval Arabic and Middle Eastern doctors and scholars.

Arab scholars made significant contributions to the field of medicine and health care during the Islamic Golden Age, which lasted from the 8th to the 13th century. They built on advances introduced by the Greek, Roman and Persian empires, translating medical texts, including the works of Hippocrates and Galen, so that research could continue, especially in the fields of medicine and pharmacology. They also wrote their own medical texts, such as the famous Canon of Medicine by Avicenna, which was a comprehensive medical encyclopedia that remained in use in Europe for several centuries.

Furthermore, they introduced new fields of medical research and clinical practice, including gynecology, embryology and a focus on the care of mothers and children. 

Early Arabs doctors were the first to incorporate surgery, then a separate discipline, into the study of medicine and to develop its practice and techniques, such as the use of anesthesia and the development of surgical instruments.

Among their most important contributions were those towards the field of public health, developing hygiene practices and public health, such as the use of alcohol as an antiseptic and other measures to prevent the spread of disease such as smallpox and measles,

Perhaps the most concrete legacy is the structure of hospitals as we know them today. Arab physicians established the first hospitals in the Islamic world, such as the Al-Mansuri Hospital in Cairo and the Al-Adudi Hospital in Baghdad. These hospitals provided free medical care to patients of all socio-economic backgrounds, regardless of sex, religion or ethnicity. These hospitals were organized into wards by gender and nature of illness with on-site pharmacies and training programs for students, laying the foundation for medical education and possibly modern day residency programs. 

These deeply rooted connections shape us not only as practitioners, but as patients. Today, as we have embarked on an era of personalized health care and respect for diversity, we have come to appreciate that all people have a unique identity shaped by how they view themselves and others. Diversity is not just about recognizing differences such as race and socioeconomic status, but also about accepting individuality.

As a physician providing care to Arab American patients, I have realized that Arab Americans possess complex and unique health challenges. Despite elevated levels of education and lower unemployment, many lack health insurance, living below the federal poverty level. With the advent of the most recent turmoil in the region, Arab refugees and displaced immigrants are the most impacted by language barriers, financial hardship, food insecurity, lack of access to health care and poor communication with their health care providers, hence it is important to tailor our care by creating an inclusive and culturally competent health care environment.

I feel that as a proud Arab American, it is my duty to live up to my ancestors reputation and continue to advance medicine through scientific clinical research. It is likely that the medical field would not be what it is today without the contributions of Arab American culture and it is crucial we all remain mindful of these connections, not only as we evaluate the state of medicine or receive medical care, but as my fellow practitioners and I treat and deal with patients. 

Fawaz Al-Mufti, M.D., associate professor of neurology, neurosurgery and radiology, assistant dean for graduate medical education research and associate chair of neurology research, New York Medical College, and Rolla Nuoman, M.D. assistant professor of pediatrics at New York Medical College. The opinions expressed in this article are solely those of the authors and do not reflect the views of New York Medical College.