April 20, 2023

Could following Marvel’s mythical Wakanda aid Canadian health-care systems?

Researchers from UCalgary analyze the mythical African nation in journal article
Wakanda Forever

It doesn’t take a researcher to conclude that COVID-19 has challenged the entire world. However, that world is looking to research to help suggest necessary changes in health care to create equitable systems so everyone has the capacity to thrive when faced with a health crisis.   

“It is very difficult currently to re-imagine health care given that we are still consumed with urgent services and overwhelmed clinicians,” says UCalgary Nursing’s Dr. Jennifer Jackson, RN, PhD, lead author on ‘“Just Because Something Works Doesn’t Mean it Can’t Be Improved’: An Analysis of the Healthcare System in Black Panther’s Wakanda,” published in BMJ’s Global Health.

“We thought about looking for examples of health-care systems that could be aspirational for change. While it is a fun paper, we used rigorous methods to reach our conclusion."

Jackson and her co-authors, which include members from Cumming School of Medicine and Faculty of Arts, conducted an ethnographic analysis of the Black Panther films for their examination of the fictional Wakanda, first documented in Marvel comics in 1966. Observations made were anchored in the viewing of the cultural identity of the nation in the Black Panther films, in particular examples of health-care systems and technology, the cultural significance of health, and reflections on how the Wakandan health-care system contrasted with other real-world examples. 

“Wakanda’s health care is embedded with cultural safety and an absence of racism,” says Jackson. “The fact that Wakanda has not experienced colonization also means that country has not had to deal with the negative health outcomes that result from that. Wakandans also embrace innovation, incorporating biomedical engineering into procedures for developing timely diagnoses and planning suitable treatment regimes. For example, we see the character Shuri conducting research alongside patient care.” 

“I think some visions of the future of health have been driven by franchises such as Star Trek and Star Wars, but these were largely technological,” says Dr. Michael Kallos, PhD, head of Schulich School of Engineering’s Biomedical Engineering Department. “In contrast, the Marvel franchise, through its depiction of Wakanda, has added a dimension of tradition, family and humanity that is needed.

"When technology and biomedical engineering are integrated into the system and researchers are working directly with end users of the technologies — nurses, clinicians, surgeons, the public — we will have the key to leading long healthy productive lives.”   

Nurses have long espoused that health care needs to be modelled on wellness promotion, not only illness treatment. Wakandans emphasize collective well-being rather than an individualistic approach. 

“This means the entire population has equitable access to health-care technology,” Jackson says. 

Black Panther generated dialogue about anti-racism, and specifically anti-Black racism, within societies real and imagined, says Cumming School of Medicine’s Melissa Scott, a research associate in the Department of Family Medicine and a contributor to the paper.

“Wakanda is portrayed in a utopian sense, depicting a world in which racism doesn't exist, including as a determinant of health for Wakandans," says Scott. "While there is a long-standing history of Black people being devalued and receiving inequitable health care, Black Panther shifts the narrative, showing that by centring Black people, identity and culture in the health supports, services and systems for Wakandan people, patient outcomes are enhanced.

"Wakanda's health care employs upstream approaches addressing the root causes of health issues, helping viewers utilize imagination and creativity as inspired by the film to envision creative ways to challenge structural barriers such as racism in our own health-care systems.” 

The authors conclude that, even though Wakanda is fictional, it comes from the minds of humans. So, ask the authors: “Why can’t we produce real-life anti-colonial and fair health systems using the same human imaginations?” 

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