Alternative Systems of Medicine – a vacuous, outdated and dangerous notion

snake-oilMany years ago, my uncle – who was a doctor – once told me, “There are no systems of medicine, just a system [singular]”. What he meant was that the only effective “system of medicine” known to humankind is the one that discovers new ways to heal the sick through rational supposition (about a drug or a clinical method), and subsequent confirmation through controlled experiments.

Over 150 years have past since Pasteur & Koch confirmed the germ theory of disease, and it’s been nearly 70 years since the basics of health science and modern medicine were introduced into middle & upper school curricula in our own country. Yet I find that this foundational truth about the empirical nature of medicine has not taken root in the ethos of Sri Lankans. I see a worryingly large number of compatriots believe that there are several alternative “systems of medicine” available at our disposal, such as “Western Medicine”, “Ayurveda Medicine”, “Acupuncture”, “Homeopathic Medicine”, “Astral Medicine”, “Alternative Medicine” or “Indigenous Medicine”.

Furthermore, the fact that there is a functioning government Ministry for “Indigenous Medicine” shows how far and wide this retrogressive misconception is entrenched in Lankan society. I believe its high time movers, shakers and socially conscious individuals muster their courage and the necessary resources to launch a massive campaign to educate the masses away from this harmful notion of the availability of alternative “medical systems”. There are many “disruptive” campaigns afoot in Lanka to raise the consciousness of society about problem areas like Gay Rights, Smoking, Drinking, Drug Abuse, Women’s Rights and Children’s Rights. The addition of PSEUDOMEDICINE to this list is long overdue.

If one were to properly survey the magnitude of the damage caused by so-called “alternative systems” of medicine, calculated in the form of loss of life, debilitation and needless discomfort caused by maltreatment of diseases, and the amount of money frittered away on bogus therapies for chronic or incurable conditions, one might be stunned by its enormity. It may very well prove to overshadow the combined “cost” to the nation, incurred by the aforementioned problem areas combined, such as Smoking, Drinking and Drug Abuse.

I confess I’ve forgotten most of the details about elementary medical science that I learned at school; and yet I was impressed enough by the subject matter to have etched in memory such useful principles like The Double-Blind Trial, The Hippocratic Oath (i.e. doctors swearing to first do no harm to the patient), The Germ Theory of Disease and How Infections Spread, the Theory of Immunity and How Vaccination Works, the Hereditary Nature of Some Illnesses, the Unreliability of Anecdotal Evidence, or The Difference Between a Virus and a Bacterium.

Let us recollect for a moment the concept of The Double-Blind Clinical Trial; if memory serves me, this is something we learn about in our GCE O/L Class. Any new medicine is assigned a period to test its effectiveness, where neither the researcher of the drug, nor the drug’s potential beneficiaries, actually know who gets the potent pills, and who gets the dummy pills that are thrown into the bargain to eliminate subjective human bias. We learned that an impartial third party adjudicator does a random assignment of patients to pills (potent or dummy), and that this same third party gathers the raw results, performs statistical analysis, and presents only the final outcome to the research team.

Have such impartial clinical trials ever been conducted to test the effectiveness of these so-called alternative methods of treatment? I challenge readers to present a single credible experiment conducted on popular “alternative medicines” like the thailayas, guliyas and arishtas of Ayurveda, published as a case study in a peer-reviewed journal. At best these substances facilitate the placebo effect – where a patient’s psychology improves immediately because they think they are under treatment, perhaps causing some degree of physiological improvement in turn, due to reduction in stress. At worst though, some compounds (such as Alcohol, Heavy Metals) in these “medicines” can be toxic when ingested over long periods of time, aggravating the original condition or causing other illnesses to crop up.

I suspect however that the biggest problem is that there are countless unreported cases of patients having delayed receiving proper medical attention for their complaints, because they counted instead on an “alternative” therapy to do its work. When their condition gets acute, they are rushed to hospital, where oftentimes it’s too late. Septicemia or other complications set in, causing death.

The way so-called Western Medicine is administered in our country is far from perfect, where abuses range from incompetence, to the indiscriminate prescription of antibiotics for colds (which are caused by viruses and thus unaffected by antibiotics, unless there is secondary bacterial infection that needs treatment), to delays in the treatment of acute infections due to fear of accountability for their side effects, to the administering of drugs without informing patients of their side effects, and taking no precautions against them.

The naked truth though is that in spite of these common imperfections in its practice, the “Western” system of medicine remains the only effective and self-improving system of medicine available to us, and its benefits far outweigh its drawbacks. There is simply no comparison with “alternative medicines”; they are mere hocus pocus, and represent an early historical attempt at healing the sick. They were superseded by modern, evidence-based medicine around 150 years ago. We must move on.

What worries me most, and what I am trying to address in this appeal to Lankan society, is that the knowledge we are taught at school about health and medicine aught to shape our subconscious instincts about the world. Much in the same way that gravity makes us shy of heights, or the volatility of petrol makes us shy of lighting matches near open fuel tanks, one would expect the educated masses to shy away from pseudo medicines and quacks reflexively. It is this instinct, to know when we are stepping outside of the medical system into woo-woo land, which I feel we aught to inculcate in our children.

The movement to educate society about how to look after ourselves and our loved ones in times of ill health is worthy of being elevated to the level of a profound social campaign akin to human rights, anti-smoking or gay rights, where the consciousness of the masses are sensitized to this issue through direct action. Where are the NGOs promoting health awareness?

I am by no means advocating here that we must become completely mechanistic in our approach to helping sick people. All human existential problems in general, and illness in particular, must without doubt be approached with a touch of spirituality. I personally am an atheist, unless one considers a belief in a deistic order in nature that transcends parochial religion, as being religious. Yet I certainly could empathize with a more religious minded person, who says a prayer for her love ones to recover. Any compassionate human being aught to be able to relate to this need for an almighty’s help, when one feels utterly helpless. However a loving, spiritual approach to patient care clearly doesn’t include allowing charlatans to deceive patients and aggravate illnesses, or holding off on more effective treatments due to one’s sheer ignorance. It is this ignorance that we must eradicate.

If you care about your loved ones, and want them to be able to get the best possible medical attention when they fall sick, then please join this campaign and echo this mantra.

When you fall sick

Lets learn about our bodies,
and how we fall sick.
There is just one system of medicine,
that makes us well quick.

Or even if it doesn’t,
and it only eases the pain,
its far far better,
than suffering in vain.

Do say a prayer,
to heal your sister,
but don’t waste your time,
take her to a doctor.

When you fall sick, charlatans will rush forth,
they will play upon your vulnerability, and take you up the garden path.
Its only your education, and your desire to know the truth,
that will save you and your family, from the devils hearth.

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