By Clay Jones, Margaret Lillie & Zhao Ni

Doctors David Boyd and John Stanifer visited class on November 15th to discuss the role of traditional medicines in global health. From the discussion, we learned how the use and beliefs surrounding traditional medicines can be very different from the western biomedical model that we are familiar with, and that these “alternative” methods are often the first treatments that are sought before advanced or western medical care.

One important nuance that Dr.Boyd discussed was the ultimate goal of different types of practices. Whereas biomedicine focuses on treating disease, traditional medicine focuses on healing all aspects of illness – including social and psychological factors. This notion of complete healing, rather than just treating disease, represents an important gap which traditional medicine can fill alongside the biomedical model. For example, traditional Chinese medicine incorporates acupuncture, herbal medicines, special diets, and meditative exercises such as tai chi. Ayurveda in India similarly uses the meditative exercises of yoga, purifying diets, and natural products. Alternative medicine does not only fill gaps within the biomedical model; it also can improve upon biomedicine through the production of important pharmaceuticals that come from the natural environment such as artemisinin, the top antimalarial on the market. Important antibiotic research is also gaining ground in this area in a time of heightening tension surrounding a growth in antibiotic resistance.

Despite some social stigmas, concrete understanding of healing mechanisms, and the difference in belief systems, many alternative psychological treatments are becoming more common alongside disease treatment. Increasingly, hospitals are providing alternative care services, such as meditation and mindfulness groups, acupuncture, and massage. Additionally, research is picking up on ethnomedical assisted psychotherapy. Dr. Boyd mentioned how the VA hospital system is increasingly recommending veterans to Navajo healing ceremonies to help with mental distress. Additionally, researchers at New York University recently conducted the “Psilocybin Cancer Anxiety Study,” where study subjects with advanced cancers underwent carefully controlled and monitored psilocybin assisted psychotherapy sessions. Psilocybin, the psychoactive component of many hallucinogenic mushroom species, has been used in healing rituals for thousands of years with strong roots in Mesoamerican cultures. These are just a few examples of the “total healing” that traditional medicine can offer.

From a global perspective, the pattern of disease in developing nations is changing. Unlike in the past when communicable diseases were the dominant burden of disease, now fifty percent of the health burden in developing countries is due to noncommunicable diseases, such as cardiovascular diseases, diabetes, hypertension, depression, and use of tobacco and other addictive substances. For these noncommunicable diseases, lifestyle, diet, obesity, lack of exercise, and stress are important contributing factors, therefore traditional medicines approaches to these factors in particular will be increasingly important for the development of future health care strategies for the developing world.

Despite the great many potential benefits of traditional medicine, we must also be aware of potentially harmful or counterproductive practices. One example Dr.Stanifer gave was about the impact of drinking a solution made from aloe vera to manage kidney disease symptoms, which actually has a negative effect on kidney function. In addition, historically and culturally, hand hygiene was not drawn enough attention by many traditional medicine practitioners.

We, as future global health researchers, should keep local healing systems in mind when investigating and conducting research in low and middle income countries due to these effects. We must understand that individuals are part of a much bigger healing network than the biomedical framework offers. If we do not approach these situations respectfully with an open-minded curiosity, we risk alienating the very people who we wish to help.

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