Mrs Sharma’s house help, Anita, was afflicted with eczema, and needed money for treatment. Her employer willingly gave her the money, thinking Anita would opt for conventional treatment. However, she instead went to a ‘famous doctor’ in her locality. This ‘doctor’ did not have training in medicine, but he did have a clinic. The only information below his name was ‘Ayurvedic doctor’. Unfortunately for Anita, he was a quack, with no real training in Ayurveda. His spurious drugs exacerbated the eczema condition, making it worse than before. After learning about Anita’s bitter experience, Mrs Sharma, also a believer in alternative medicine, took her to a dermatologist while also consulting a trained, qualified naturopath.
Modern medicine often evokes awe. Massive gleaming hospitals, expensive computerized equipment and sophisticated scanning machines appear very impressive and reassuring when you are afflicted with a disease. However, paradoxically, even though the effectiveness of medical technology has improved considerably, more patients than ever before are 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 percent of the patients have consulted an alternative medicine practitioner, mainly because they were unhappy with modern medical care.
There are many reasons for this growing unhappiness with modern medicine. Patients increasingly feel that medicine has become excessively commercial. They are unhappy with the impersonal nature of modern medicine, especially when the doctor spends more time looking at their reports 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 illnesses (such as diabetes, hypertension and heart disease) to which modern human beings are prone to, owing to their lifestyle.
Alternative medicine, on the other hand, offers a markedly different perspective. Rather than focussing on a person's 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 add the element of personal touch, and ask many questions. Such attention feels good, and is 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. Moreover, the simple act of a comforting touch can have a therapeutic effect. Alternative medicine doctors are very good at reassuring patients, which is in sharp contrast to the cold scientific approach of western medicine.
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, making it difficult to confirm or dispute claims. Consequently, one has to blindly trust the doctor. Authoritative journals or texts are difficult to find. Most publications use little scientific rigour and are based mostly on anecdotal case reports, with little documentation or proof. Since there is no official monitoring of the practitioners of alternative medicine, anyone can make tall claims and get away with them. Also, there are few formal training requirements, and anyone can practice alternative medicine, with minimal skills or qualifications. This had led to the mushrooming of unscrupulous practitioners or ‘quacks’, who are out to make a quick buck. 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, there is a grave danger that medicine can become a 'bastardised' system (for example, there are homeopathic practitioners in India who prescribe allopathic antibiotics for coughs and colds). This can have a considerably detrimental effect on patients. Even worse, it actually amounts to cheating patients both financially and emotionally, since they decided to shun allopathy for a more ‘natural’ approach!
Alternative medicine has its place in society, but the above issues must be addressed. 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. There is one common underlying principle of medicine that doctors should always keep in mind – patient health is top priority. Essentially, all doctors are on the same side. We all want our patients to get better, no matter what system of medicine we practice! Then why discredit each other?
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 ends of the spectrum can learn from each other! Indian doctors must be willing to blend an open, receptive mind with the scientific discipline needed for rigorous research. If they adopt such an approach, they can become world leaders in providing the best medical care to their patients, given our immense patient population and rich traditional medical knowledge base.
This is where Information Therapy can play a key role, and help to bridge the gap. There is still immense confusion about alternative medicine systems with regard to what works and what does not. For one, many of these systems do not have a sound scientific basis, which is why modern doctors are so skeptical about their claims! After all, if you progressively dilute something, common sense will tell you it will become less effective. How can homeopathy make the astounding claim that a higher dilution increases potency? Isn’t this counterintuitive and illogical? However, just because we cannot understand the scientific rationale behind the alternative medicine does not mean that it does not work! There are lots of drugs in western medicine for which we do not understand the precise mechanism of action, but we still use them all the time!
Sadly, a lot of alternative medicine practitioners are quacks. They take advantage of the fact that many of these systems do not require formal training or licensing. They pick up a ND or MD degree from some online university, label themselves as ‘doctors’ and start practicing. To make matters worse, they take great pride in making tall, ridiculous claims. Thus, they promise to cure everything and anything – something which no self-respecting doctor (or patient) can possibly accept! They end up losing all credibility and a result of which the entire system of alternative medicine gets a bad reputation. There must be stricter laws in place that prevent such quacks from flourishing. Public awareness is of paramount importance.
Alternative medicine, when practiced with integrity and sufficient medical knowledge, can be helpful. There is lots of empirical evidence that alternative medicines do work well for some conditions – but no system is a panacea for all ills. Sadly, rather than working out a common solution, there are mainstream versus alternative medicine battles. These are primarily being waged for financial reasons, since systems that acquire legitimacy can earn their practitioners lots of money!
Why does Western ‘modern’ medicine pejoratively label other systems as being complementary or alternative? This smacks of cultural arrogance – after all, Ayurvedic medicine and Chinese medicine boast of a far longer track record than western medicine! And Western medicine does not have a monopoly on knowledge! Patients simply want to get better. Most do not really care how. Then why have this silly demarcation and unnecessary mud slinging? Instead, we can use all this energy to learn from each other!
Personally, I hold the opinion that there are only two types of medicine – effective and ineffective! The dirty little secret is that lots of accepted ‘treatments’ in western/ mainstream/scientific medicine are ineffective and have never been proven to cure. These include billion dollar interventions, such as cholesterol reducing drugs, disc surgery for back pain, and bypass surgery! So conventional medicine, just like its alternative counterpart, can also mislead. It is important for practitioners of both systems to see the larger picture.
How do we separate the good from the bad and the ugly? Information Therapy can come to the rescue! The goal of effective Information Therapy is not to label treatments, disparage them or make prejudiced judgments. It has an uncomplicated mission - provide authentic reliable information, and allow patients to make well-informed decisions. Then whether they head to an MBBS-qualified physician or one with a degree in alternative medicine or consult both is entirely up to them. A healthy dose of Information Therapy will ensure that they make decisions based on knowledge and facts, and not whim or fancy!
HELP will be organizing its 2nd Annual Conference on Putting Patients First. The theme this time is : Using Information Therapy to Put Patients First in India.
The website is at http://www.patientpower.in/
This will be held at Nehru Centre on Sunday, 9th October’11 . Mr.Ken Long , Vice President, International Operations at Healthwise, U.S.A, will be the keynote speaker and he will be talking on “What Healthwise is doing in the US to Promote Information Therapy – what we’ve learned so far”.
On this occasion, we will be releasing a book titled, Using Information Therapy to Put Patients First.