Many practitioners of evidence-based medicine view the increasing recognition of traditional health systems as a failure by modem medicine to satisfy the health-care needs of society. Some practitioners of biomedicine even feel threatened by a system that they view as unscientific and beyond rational categorisation. Traditional medicine, they argue, is steeped in spiritual and magical practices based on rituals, whereas biomedicine is derived from the belief in materialism and mechanism anchored on experiments and verifiable theories. By this logic, the two forms of health care are seen as direct opposites—systems that cannot collaborate in any meaningful way for the greater interest of the population. The issues are often reduced into two intractable questions: should health-care providers permit the introduction of healing ceremonies, charms, music, and incantations into modern health-care clinics? Is it ethical to allow costumed medicine men and medicine women with their elaborate rituals, feathers, pipes, drums, beads, and egg-shells to further scare and confuse distraught patients when one should be looking for the mutant gene that may be responsible for the illness? The answer in both cases is “yes”, because it is now obvious that no medical intervention will be complete if it does not recognise and accommodate the sociological context in which the patient, the healer, and the remedy exist. Traditional medicine is not an alterative to modern medicine, but a complement. Although the precise mechanism of the observed effects may still not be properly understood, therapeutic synergism will eventually be achieved through parallel practice and research.
Perhaps the inability to develop a unifying framework for the use of both traditional medicine and scientific biomedicine in human health-care practice has greatly undermined the global resolve to accomplish total health and medical-care coverage for all by the year 2000. After more than 200 years of biomedicine, it is evident that the system is best applied in disease conditions attributable to material factors such as infection, physical trauma, poisoning, nutrition, or personal and environmental hygiene. Biomedicine has often failed in conditions where behavioural, emotional, or spiritual factors have a dominant role in disease causation. It is in the latter conditions that traditional medicine has made demonstrable contributions. With increases in diseases due to psychosomatic disturbances, especially in industrialised countries, traditional medicine should be made more available as complementary therapy. Modern medicine cannot afford to continue to ignore the social dimension of illness.
Developments in human genomics have shown that no two individuals are identical in their composition, yet in a fundamental sense, all living organisms share the same building units. This new insight into the nature of life is more in accordance with the traditional belief in the role of biological energy systems and order in healing, which raises the hope that, some day, science may develop a method for proper assessment and understanding of traditional medical practices.
Herbal remedies are increasingly being accepted as therapeutic agents in modern biomedicine. Such herbal ingredients can be assessed rationally by studying their pharmacology and chemistry, but their use in such a reductionist manner obscures the real value of a system of medicine that is based on persistent faith in the natural order of the world and in healing symbols that serve as points of contact between the physical world and the spiritual realm. The treatment of diseases is not a matter that rests only between the healer and his patient. The healing ritual, whether pharmacological or spiritual, only reflects a recognition or identification of what stage of the multilayered matrix of human life and existence has become dysfunctional and at what layer the treatment is being targeted.
In many less-developed countries, health-care providers are bewildered by the seemingly contradictory behaviour of patients living in cities where conventional hospital medicine is available, who shuttle between modern and traditional health-care services. This eclectic behaviour is an acceptance of the fact that although modern medicine may be effective in addressing the symptoms associated with several human diseases, it is only traditional medicine that can heal conditions whose roots can be traced to social or spiritual disorders.
Published: December 2000
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