By Dr. Valinda P. Gueye
It is very common for any culture to assign a linear role to time and progress. There seems to be no culture in which this is truer than the culture of the United States, where anything that came before is backward and anything that is new is progressive and therefore, superior to anything historical. This is true to industry and technology as well as many other cultural issues such as education. However, within the United States, and to some degree the rest of western civilization, there is no greater truth in this regard than that of the cultural view of medicine. Modern medicine is a demigod of western culture.
Allopathic medicine is thought of as the proud brainchild of the modern world. It is even referred to as “modern” a term that nearly always denotes superiority, making it seem more logical and scientific to practitioners and recipients and therefore, somehow more effective. Within this passage written by an American born natural medical care provider, in this case acupuncturist, there is a clear understanding the message of the American culture toward traditional or what some would call alternative medicine:
I am a practitioner of Oriental medicine. In China, I would be called “Doctor” but in the United States I am not permitted to use that title. When I fulfilled the requirements for being licensed to practice acupuncture in my state, I had to agree not to call myself “doctor.” It seems a small matter, but it reflects a view held by many Americans that only practitioners of Western medicine are worthy of the name. Acupuncture can alleviate prolonged pain, discomfort, and anxiety, and end severe dependence on a medical system so huge and impersonal that each patient feels like a forgotten cog in a machine. (Cargill 1994, 3)
Almost from the beginning of the allopathic medical movement that became the standard in the United States and other western nations and the basis for nearly all medical regulations and laws pertaining to health care, has been questioned and opposed through active membership in natural health organizations and participation in natural healing arts.
The challenges to allopathic medicine are intrinsic. As an individualistic society grows more and more conscious of the need to have greater personal control over their own health, they individually become more demanding of personal control. Additionally, many have a pervasive sense of separation from the technologically driven and complicated nature of allopathic medicine that makes them feel isolated from solutions to their own health problems. It almost eliminates, as crucial, the need for balance in the life of a patient, by allowing or even forcing the patient to believe that health and healing are not within their own control.
Although, many people superciliously believe that which is practiced by medical doctors in the United States today is far more progressive and effective than any traditional medicine practiced prior to the development of allopathic medicine, there is still great vocal dissent in practice and culture. This dissent is leading many people back to the roots of medicine as they explore options that are more personal and self-centered forms of healing; a personal rejection of allopathic medicine and a proactive measure for self-control and opportunity.
In seeking options outside the allopathic medical world, people are finding the solutions to life problems they didn’t even know existed. They are re-balancing their lives and their spirits, clearly the most important element of health. Even the “alternative” and “complementary” health care system is corrupted by a few capitalistic standards, including but not limited to the fact that so many theories and practices are only explained by those who wish to sell them, sometimes regardless of its value or lack of value. It is for these reasons the individual must take charge of their own health, learn from the knowledge which builds a balanced ideal of health and discovery a holistic plan, and secures a practitioner who cradles their needs and their spirits.
Even so, what is becoming even more common are those who practice a kind of collective health care process, including elements of both allopathic medicine (non-natural medicine and surgery) when needed and natural medicine and as a restorative and as a preventative modality. This has resulted in the reference of traditional medicine as alternative medicine. Anything which falls outside the norm of allopathy is considered complementary medicine, which is being utilized by many as something that reinforces rather than replaces allopathic medicine.
Poor public opinion of natural healing as quackery is changing as more and more people become aware of the restorative and even preventative focus of “alternative” medicine and more people become disillusioned by the sometimes cold and calculating feel of allopathic medicine.
According to a nationwide survey done in 2002 and published in May by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, more than one-third of American adults had used at least one form of complementary or alternative medicine in the previous 12 months … Many of these techniques have deep historical and intellectual roots in the cultures of other countries and have been around for hundreds, if not thousands, of years. In fact, for more than 70 percent of the world’s population, they are not “alternative,” but the primary approach to health care according to the University of Maryland School of Medicine. (VanScoy, 2004). Allopathic physicians are being asked hard questions by their patients, as their patients take responsibility for their health, researching alternatives and complementary services offered by natural healers.
The influx of information that is available to the individual on almost any medical condition online is a growing source of personal knowledge that drives hard questions to their allopathic doctors. Sometimes these questions are followed by realistic investigation and other times they are followed by informing the patient to fear the unknown. Many allopathic doctors are not even aware that many of their standard procedures have not been put through clinical trials.
Very few surgical procedures — which are not, as drugs are, subject to FDA approval -have ever been through large-scale clinical trials. This is also true of many long-used conventional diagnostic techniques and drugs: a 1978 study by the U.S. Congress’ Office of Technology Assessment indicated that approximately 85 percent of all therapies and procedures that were commonly used by physicians and in hospitals had never received any kind of rigorous evaluation. (Gordon 1996, 273)
Another point in need of mention is the economics of medicine. Though most individuals would like to remove medicine from those prolific social institutions driven by economic forces this cannot be done, as like anything else in a capitalistic culture is driven by the all-mighty dollar. The cost of the technology that has driven allopathic medicine is now being questioned as a price too high for the product the culture has received.
A capitalistic economy and culture drive the ideas and research that dominate the medical world. Though, it is not to say that individuals involved in the industry are necessarily greedy when they conceive of a way to help a sick person, when they bring the idea to their bottom line supervisors, it dies if it has no chance of paying for itself. Choosing the bottom line as the common denominator between what is researched and brought to fruition and what is not, complicates the holistic ideal and buries ideas that are simpler and often much less harmful, while it promotes treatments and plans that are technologically complicated and sometimes even dangerous.
Since the beginning of the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution, the Chinese have taken major steps toward repudiating accepted ideas of the superiority of western technology and the neutrality of science. In the West, the development of science and medicine within the capitalist system has led to the monopolization of science by elites. This is not an automatic result of scientific and technological advancement, as some western sociologists will have us believe. Rather it results from capitalist relations of production. (Luh, and Wilson 1978, 67)
In this case, the culture may be helped, as more and more allopathic physicians and medical organizations and insurance companies become aware of the monetary potential of alternative therapies. More people are softening to the idea of their use in allopathic centers.
With this tentative introduction of just a few natural healthcare techniques, such as massage therapy, meditation, relaxation and aromatherapy, more and more people are becoming aware of alternatives and complementary services that then seem far less daunting and mysterious.
Dr. Keith Berkowitz, who is medical director at the Center for Balanced Health in New York City, said many conventional physicians are becoming more open to alternative and complementary therapies even before clinical trials have fully confirmed their value. He points to the availability of acupuncture in many hospitals, along with the widespread use of massage. Furthermore, said Berkowitz, the integration of supplements and herbs with diet and prescription medication is a sign of the shift that’s under way to meld once-marginal therapies with mainstream medical techniques.
“When I was in medical school, I learned close to zero about nutritional approaches, herbal medicine, vitamins or minerals,” said Berkowitz. “When I first saw patients in the hospital who were taking vitamin C, it scared me. I didn’t know whether it was good or bad for them.” Dr. Keith Berkowitz, the medical director at the Center for Balanced Health in New York City (VanScoy, 2004)
Within the US medical community there has been a vocal distrust for medical practices, which fall outside the structure and politics of allopathic medicine. Practitioners and a group of the public maintain a common sense of the ignorance of natural medicine and conclude that the unknown should be feared, at least with regard to medical care, despite the fact that there are multitudes of unknowns even within the allopathic tradition.
The upward trend in popularity of complementary and alternative medicine continues to grow. According to the Journal of the AMA, In 1997, patients in the U.S. made 629 million visits to providers of non-conventional care. These are more visits than were made to primary care doctors during the same year.
Further, the annual cost of these visits, $21 billion, exceeds the annual cost of ALL hospitalizations. It is clear from this statement that the numbers do not lie. (Shiel 2000).
As more and more people become practitioners of natural alternatives, the financial growth trend will continue to show allopathic physicians and health care organizations the financial potential of alternative or complementary care, which will in turn continue to grow, possibly changing the face of medical care in the western tradition.
Fear of the unknown can be seen demonstrated very clearly with regard to the required labeling of natural supplements and products. Despite the fact that Alternative Medicine has been documented and practiced for over 5000 years, while allopathic medicine has only been in existence for 200 years, there are special cultural and legal challenges to alternative medicine that restrict its use and cloud the judgment of those who could benefit from it, though things are definitely in transition.
Given the strong cultural bias in favor of the allopathic, biomedical model, we should not be too surprised that in both the United Kingdom and the United States, discussion of law and ethics in the healing professions has been dominated by medical ethics and medico-legal issues … the ethical dilemmas seized upon by the media reflect the highly technological, invasive nature that characterizes much of modern medicine. (Julie Stone, and Joan Matthews 1996, 118)
My future articles will focus on the ideals of natural medicine and outline a number of natural healthcare options that reflect the historical value of natural healing. The articles will focus on the idea that natural medicine is actually traditional medicine and should be looked at as such, with benefits and drawbacks, just as allopathic medicine is by many. Additionally, I will focus on the benefits and possibilities of such medical practices and attempt to further the understanding and practical application of natural and holistic health models.
Cargill, Marie. 1994. Acupuncture: A Viable Medical Alternative. Westport, CT: Praeger Publishers. Vanscoy, Holly, Sept. 2004, “Alternative Medicine Slips into the Mainstream” Health Daily News. Website:http://www.medicinenet.com/script/main/art.asp
Gordon, James S. 1996. Manifesto for a New Medicine: Your Guide to Healing Partnerships and the Wise Use of Alternative Therapies. Reading, MA: Perseus Publishing.
Luh, Catherine L., and David A. Wilson. 1978. A Review Essay Acupuncture: Politics and Medicine. Bulletin of Concerned Asian Scholars 10, no. 1: 67-72.
Vanscoy, Holly, Sept. 2004, “Alternative Medicine Slips into the Mainstream” Health
Daily News. Website:
Shiel, William C. M.D. August 2000. “Complementary & Alternative Medicine. Stone, Julie and Joan Matthews. 1996. Complementary Medicine and the Law.
(If you have comments, you may contact Dr. Valinda P. Gueye, at XXXXX).