Chapter 11: Alternative Medicine: Exploring Your Options
The art of medicine consists of amusing the patient while nature cures the disease - Voltaire
Modern medicine often inspires awe. The huge gleaming hospitals, expensive computerized equipment and sophisticated scanning machines appear very impressive and reassuring when you are afflicted by a disease. However, paradoxically, even though the effectiveness of medical technology has improved dramatically, more patients than ever before have become dissatisfied with their medical care today. This situation has resulted in a move towards alternative medicine, which has become increasingly popular all over the world. Even in the United States of America (the bastion of high-tech scientific medicine), more than 50 per cent of the patients have consulted an alternative medicine practitioner, mainly because they were unhappy with modern medical care.
There are many reasons for this unhappiness with modern medicine. Patients increasingly feel that medicine has become too commercial and that doctors are too busy to spend time with them. They are unhappy with the impersonal nature of modern medicine, especially when the doctor spends more time looking at their reports and scans, rather than with them. While it is true that patients need technology, they also need tender, loving care; after all, doctors need to look after not only their medical problems, but also their emotional needs! Moreover, while modern medicine excels in certain areas (such as complex surgery for the repair of birth defects and the use of antibiotics for serious infections), it has failed miserably in the areas of disease prevention and the management of the myriad chronic illness (such as diabetes, hypertension and heart disease) to which modern human beings are prone to, because of their lifestyle.
Alternative medicine, on the other hand, offers a markedly different perspective. Rather than focussing on a persons medical problems in isolation, alternative medicine treats the patient as a whole; hence the popular term, holistic medicine. Doctors practicing alternative medicine sit down and talk to the patient; they touch and feel him and ask many questions. And such attention feels good, in refreshing contrast to the modern doctor who rarely has even 15 minutes to spend with the patient. (Often, tender loving care and personal attention are all that alternative medicine practitioners have to offer, but they offer it very well indeed !) There is no doubt of the efficacy of the placebo effect, and many ailments will get better when the patient has someone he can talk to. Also, the simple act of touching the patient, can have a therapeutic effect. Alternative medicine doctors are very good at reassuring patients, as contrasted with the coldly scientific approach of western medicine.
Modern medicine treats illness using science and technology; it focuses narrowly how the doctor can solve the problem when the patient is ill. Alternative medicine, in a radically different approach, emphasiss the importance of staying healthy and requires individuals to take more responsibility for their own health. Traditional medical wisdom (for example, ayurveda in India) linked health to a state of harmony and disease to a state of imbalance, and focussed on well-being and remaining well, and not on just fixing the problem after one fell ill!
At this stage, we need to differentiate between alternative and complementary therapies. Since alternative treatments are used instead of conventional regimens, they can be medically dangerous and can delay standard medical care. Complementary therapies, on the other hand, are used in conjunction with mainstream treatment and are much more commoner. Complementary therapies become alternative only when promoted as stand-alone remedies for serious illnesses. It is not the therapy itself, but its goal or the intention behind its use, that defines a regimen as alternative versus complementary.
Unfortunately, the practice of alternative medicine in India today leaves a lot to be desired. For one, such medicine does not have a universally accepted scientific basis; hence, it is difficult to rigorously analyze its claims. Since there is no need for formal publication or peer review in alternative systems of medicine, there is little scientific documentation available about their efficacy or side-effects, so that it becomes difficult to confirm claims or dispute them. Consequently, one has to blindly trust the doctor . Authoritative journals or texts are difficult to find; and most publications use little scientific rigour, being based mostly on anecdotal case reports, with little documentation or proof. Moreover, since there is no official monitoring of the practitioners of alternative medicine, anyone can make tall claims and get away with them ! Also, since there are few formal training requirements, anyone can practice alternative medicine, with minimal skills or qualifications. Unfortunately, unscrupulous practitioners have mushroomed, who are out to make a quick buck, and malpractices and quackery flourish.
Alternative medicine practitioners need to be made accountable for their actions to ensure that they are up to date with their education. Also, some type of peer review mechanism needs to be put in place to ensure the safety of the public. Otherwise, the danger is that medicine can become a bastardised system (for example, homeopathic practitioners in India who prescribe allopathic antibiotics for coughs and colds) which can harm patients considerably.
One of the reasons for this sorry state of affairs is that alternative medical systems receive little official support and minimal funding. The situation often deteriorates into a conventional versus alternative medicine confrontation, with each system belittling the other, and this is a real tragedy. By ignoring alternative systems, doctors may be depriving patients of better medical treatment options. We need to remember that all doctors are on the same side - all of us want our patients to get better, no matter what system of medicine we practice !
Diverse modalities such as massage, Reiki, yoga, ayurveda, acupressure, hypnosis, homeopathy, naturopathy and many others can work in conjunction with each other as part of a unified team rather than in competition. We need to learn to combine the best of both worlds - high technology with high touch - and this is called integrative medicine, as pioneered by Dr Andrew Weil of the USA. Integrative medicine neither rejects conventional medicine nor embraces alternative medicine uncritically - just because most alternative medicine systems are natural does not automatically make them better ! For example, for emergency care in the case of acute medical problems such as a fracture, Western medicine is still the best bet. However, for chronic diseases such as arthritis, asthma, angina and hypertension, alternative medicine may offer a better choice for some patients. The most important requirement is that you need to find a good doctor, no matter what system of medicine you choose to follow. It is equally important that you understand the limits and the rationale of the system, so that you are not taken for a ride. Thus, if an ayurvedic doctor prescribes antibiotics, you should begin worrying!
The combined knowledge of both old and new healing modalities is ultimately superior than a single-model approach to health and well-being. After all, no system of medicine can claim to have a monopoly on knowledge! What is needed today is a clinically responsible balance between the science of modern medicine and the comfort of alternative medicine. We need to combine the best of both worlds, much like fusion music does, and physicians from both sides can learn from each other! If Indian doctors are willing to blend an open mind with the scientific discipline which is needed for rigorous research, given our immense patient population and rich traditional medical knowledge base, they can become world leaders in providing the best medical care to their patients.