Social medicine in Latin America has emerged as a sometimes dangerous but very productive field of work. A focus on the social origins of illness and early death inherently challenges the relations of economic and political power in Latin America. As a result, participation in social medicine has led to suffering and even death for some of its most talented and productive adherents. The themes and findings of Latin American social medicine have become pertinent for problems in medicine and public health throughout the world. Due to language barriers and possibly due to skepticism about research emanating from the ‘Third World’, ignorance prevails among many health professionals whose work could advance if the productivity of Latin American social medicine proved more accessible.
Practitioners of Latin American social medicine have used theories and methods that distinguish their efforts from those of traditional public health. In particular, a focus on the social and historical contexts of health problems, an emphasis on economic production and social causation, and the linkage of research and education to political practice have provided innovative approaches to some of the most important problems of our age. For the United States and other ‘First World’ countries, during an era of globalization and its dangers, the courageous work of Latin American social medicine may become a highly valued import.