IN just three days, Malaysia is playing host to the world’s first conference on woman’s health and Asian traditional medicine. It has the acronym WHAT Medicine.
Over the last few months, I have been constantly asked this one question: Why focus on traditional medicine? Isn’t it just dying off?
Traditional medicine has long been scorned as “old stuff’ that is “not effective” and “unscientific”. It has even been proclaimed as “dangerous”. The practitioners have been labelled charlatans and crooks.
It has long been declared dead by a world that is seen as increasingly scientific and commercial. Traditional remedies that our mothers and grandmothers nursed us with over the ages have been quietly relegated to the background amidst all the noise on science.
Yet in studies, surveys and trials, the reality on the ground is different. Scientific studies show that herbs not only work, but they are also generally gentler, safer and cheaper. After all, they took care of our ancestors from the beginning of time until the coming of modern medicine just 150 years ago!
Even now, the World Health Organization (WHO) states that traditional medicine is the mainstay of 80% of the world’s inhabitants.
Surveys with consumers in North America and Europe show that the use of traditional medicine is growing. And surprisingly, the use is higher when the consumer is educated and has more income! This flies in the face of convention that only the poor and uneducated go looking up the “charlatans and crooks” who practise this art.
How can this happen? Why is the public choosing to make “age old medicine” into “new age medicine”? There are basically several reasons for this.
Dissatisfaction in some way with conventional treatment
Alternative treatments are seen as offering more personal autonomy and control over healthcare decisions. The alternatives are seen as more compatible with the patient’s values, worldview or beliefs regarding nature and the meaning of health and illness. And in most instances, traditional medicine is cheaper.
Far from being a “sunset” industry, traditional medicine is booming business. The World Bank estimates that the volume of business could be anywhere from US$80bil to 200bil (RM296bil to RM740bil). Indeed, the business is expected to peak at US$5 trillion (RM166.5 trillion) in 45 years, according to World Bank data.
Surveys with consumers in North America and Europe show that the use of traditional medicine is growing. And surprisingly, the use is higher when the consumer is educated and has more income.
Backed by new research, advances in biotechnology and business savviness, traditional medicine is no more “age old medicine”. It is increasingly becoming “new age medicine” – backed by informed customers and organisations.
David M Eisenberg and his team at Beth Israel hospital in the United States shocked the world with this new reality in a groundbreaking survey that found its way into the prestigious New England Journal of Medicine.
They found that one in three respondents (34%) reported using at least one unconventional therapy in the past one year. The majority of usage is for chronic as opposed to life threatening conditions.
Shockingly, 72% who used the unconventional therapy did not inform their doctor that they had done so. These numbers tell a chilling story of the “knowledge gap” between the doctor who is not aware and the consumer who is confused with the options.
It suggests that the patient wants to do something that the doctor would not approve and chooses not to tell the doctor the whole truth. Nobody benefits from this distrust in the doctor/patient relationship.
Extrapolation of the data suggests that in 1990, Americans made an estimated 425 million visits to providers of “unconventional” therapy. This exceeds the total number of visits to primary care physicians, which stood at 388 million.
David Eisenberg and team revisited the situation seven years later. Guess what? Alternative medicine was booming – faster that anybody thought.
The use of one of the 16 therapies listed increased from 33.8% in 1990 to 42.1% in 1997. The therapies most used: herbal medicine, massage, mega vitamins, self-help groups, folk remedies, energy healing and homeopathy.
The number of visits to practitioners increased from 36.3% to 46.3%. Most common conditions treated: chronic conditions like back problems, anxiety and depression and headaches. Extrapolation of the data suggests a 47.3% increase in total visits to alternative medicine practitioners from 427 million in 1990 to 629 million in 1997 – exceeding total visits to all US primary care physicians.
The survey showed that 15 million adults in 1990 took prescription medicine concurrently with herbs and/or high dose vitamin therapy – 18.4% of prescription users.
Where does this leave the average consumer? Many who use and recommend traditional medicine are women. Indeed, the data from North America and Europe suggests that women outnumber men by two to one when it came to promoting traditional medicine. In serious and chronic conditions, the use amongst the fairer sex is up to five to one. Indeed, women are more “new age” than men.
Yet, there is little acknowledgement of this fact. I hope that WHAT Medicine will go a long way towards getting the world to wake up and take notice of the role that women are playing in taking care of their health using nature and natural means. Hopefully, the world will take notice of Malaysia as a player in the field of traditional medicine.
As the event takes place on August 23 to 25 (next week), you can take part too. There are community programmes where you can hear world-class speakers live. There are lots of booths that focus on traditional medicine, woman’s health and woman’s issues. For more information call 03-79652888 or log on to www.whatmedicine.org
1. Unconventional Medicine In The United States: Prevalence, Costs and patterns of use, David M Eisenberg et al New England Journal Of Medicine 1993; Jan 28, 328(4): 246-252
2. Trends In Alternative Medicine In the United States From 1990 to 1997: Results of a follow up national survey Journal of American Medical Association (JAMA) 1998 (Nov 11); 280 (18): 1569-1575 David Eisenberg et al.
Rajen M. is a pharmacist with a doctorate in holistic medicine. Write to him at firstname.lastname@example.org. The views expressed are those of the writer and readers are advised to always consult expert advice before undertaking any changes to their lifestyles. The views and opinions expressed in this column are solely that of the author’s. The Star does not give any warranty on accuracy, completeness, functionality, usefulness or other assurances as to such information. The Star disclaims all responsibility for any losses, damage to property or personal injury suffered directly or indirectly from reliance on such information. Copyright © 1995-2005 Star Publications (Malaysia) Bhd