This paper discusses and compares the two main medical traditions – natural and conventional medicine. Both conventional and natural medicine have been practiced and found proven to hold many advantages but conventional medicine is regarded as the universal, hence, more popular method of healing illness. Conventional medicine relies on science and technology to contribute to the preservation and longevity of people’s lives and the leaps that this tradition has made has surpassed expectation. Nevertheless, with the rising cost of medicines, procedures, and hospitalization, and the preference for more holistic and non-invasive methods in the treatment of illness, naturopathy or natural medicine has grown in popularity. In its comparison with conventional medicine, this paper highlights the advantages of naturopathy including its effectiveness, safety, a good patient-healer relationship, the sense of being in control over illness, and its non-invasive nature. Naturopathy’s congruence with the culture and psychological belief systems of diverse peoples also contributes to growing preference of it. Moreover, conventional treatment has slowly incorporated natural methods such as the use of herbs, crossing over with acupuncture and other alternative practices, proving that the next best step for medicine is to maximize knowledge from both conventional and natural methods toward a better quality of life for mankind.
In the current world, medical practice is dichotomized. Medical practice may either be classified as “conventional” or “alternative.” Sometimes, classifications go by “conventional” versus “natural” or “traditional.” These medical traditions and their respective practitioners are often pitted against one another. Yet, a closer look reveals that these classifications are arbitrary and are not actually in blanket opposition. Conventional medicine also has a long history of utilizing natural resources in the past. Meanwhile, various natural methods of healing are now using technologies too.
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The real nature of these categories are hegemonic. Conventional medicine which was developed by more dominant societies and cultures arose as the dominant and in this respect, the most “scientific” way of healing. Meanwhile, indigenous, natural and traditional forms of healing that have long histories of local practices were simply lumped together in opposition to the conventional. This is similar to how various forms of traditional music have been clustered together under the banner of “world music” despite obvious aesthetic variations. Sadly, the burden of proof was pushed more to the side of the alternative or natural medical traditions.
This paper intends to give a brief discussion and comparison of conventional and natural medicine. Being the less dominant one, this paper will put stress on the strengths and positive attributes of natural medicine. Although the historical importance and contributions of conventional medicine are recognized, this paper asserts the need for a greater recognition, utilization, and further improvement in the realm of natural medicine.
Conventional medicine, sometimes called “allopathic medicine” or even “Western medicine,” is the most widely used medical system in the world today, particularly in the Western hemisphere. It is largely based on the physical and biological sciences. Its universality lies in its materialist and standardized approaches and to its positivist and experimental tradition. The materialism of this medical school enables the easy translation of the discipline to different countries and cultures. This enables its practitioners to speak the “same language” and to have a unified view of medical problems.
Advances in the field of conventional medicine owe to its strong research tradition. Conventional treatments are all supposed to subscribe to proven treatments based on evidence. Of course, many researches are now being done by multi-national pharmaceutical corporations owing to conventional medicine’s strong commercial nature. Thus, the price to pay for getting oneself cured can be very high due to the commercialized and increasingly privatized treatment facilities, medicines and other diagnostic procedures.
Indeed, it is undeniable that conventional medicine has gone through great leaps and bounds in preserving the quality and longevity of lives of people around the world. This owes very much to advances in diagnostic and treatment procedures and preventive measures. The use of X-rays, CT scans and magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) technologies now give more accurate diagnoses over a shorter period of time. Vaccinations are now preventing the spread of diseases over large populations. Advances in the pharmaceutical industries are now presenting greater potential in curing some of the world’s deadliest diseases.
Even medical doctors (M.D.) who recognize and advocate and use alternative medicine, like Weil (1998), still point out the greater ability and efficacy of conventional medicine in treating particular diseases as compared to alternative medical systems. Particularly, they mention the management and cure of viral infections; allergies; chronic degenerative diseases; autoimmune problems such as AIDS; bacterial infection; trauma; many of the serious forms of cancer; mental illnesses, which require medication; other “functional” illnesses; and medical and surgical emergencies.
However, there are still many imperfections in conventional treatments. For example, there are drugs that are effective in treating particular problems but may bring about ugly side effects. For instance, thalidomide, a morning sickness drug is known to produce severe birth defects. The taking of malarial prophylaxis, such as doxycyclin, can damage the liver over long use, thus deemed inadvisable for usage of people living in malaria-infested areas. A recent online news report told how Americans get the most radiation from medical radiology. Viruses also evolve every day which presents continuous new challenges to the medical world.
The term “natural medicine” for the purpose of this paper refers to alternative medical systems that lean towards the usage of more natural means of healing, especially in comparison to conventional medicine. This adoption of a more simplified definition is due to the existence of several yet still similar and related definitions. The term is oftentimes almost equated to “alternative medicine” which was defined by Brannon and Feist (2007) as “a group of diverse medical and health care systems, practices and products that are not currently considered part of conventional medicine” (p. 190). In actuality, the term “alternative medicine” covers a wide array of medical systems which evolved more or less independently from different cultures. Examples are the Chinese traditional medicine, from which acupuncture and acupressure arose; Ayurvedic medicine from India, Naturopathy from Europe; macrobiotics; chiropractic and other various massage treatments from all over the world. When these methods are incorporated by conventional doctors to their practice, the treatments are termed “complementary medicine.” The clustering of these diverse medical systems and traditions, some of which from great civilizations, either under the term “alternative medicine” or “complementary medicine,” implies how the former is deemed only secondary to conventional medicine.
On the other hand, natural medicine is also treated as synonymous to “naturopathy.” Naturopathy is a cure system which targets the prevention and cure of diseases with the use of safe and efficient natural remedies (Muetzell, 2008). The practitioners’ central belief is that the human being in his normal state is healthy and that disobedience to natural laws results to illnesses (Brown, 1988). It then follows that nature has the power and resources to heal and that the human body has the ability to maintain, nurse and heal itself back to health. It is said that the movement became sufficiently coherent in Europe in the 19th century. A man named Benedict Lust, a German patient who was treated for tuberculosis through hydrotheraphy and other natural means, migrated to the United States and popularized the movement. The naturopathy movement was popular in Germany and in Britain during those days and was later popularized in the United States (Brannon & Feist, 2007).
In spite of the varying definitions of natural medicine, the various alternative medical systems named early in the paper have significant similarities in their principles, which like naturopathy leans towards the healing power of nature. The seeking of natural balance is quite universal to various traditional and indigenous medical systems. In reverse, naturopathy employs various healing practices from various cultures.
Increasing Popularity in Conventional Medicine-Dominated Countries
More and more, natural medicine has been enjoying increasing popularity and patronage in countries with advanced levels of conventional medical practice. Eisenberg et al. (1993) reported that the unconventional medicine usage frequency of the United States adult population had been way higher than stated in previous reports. Particularly, they estimated that one in three persons in the U.S. adult population had been utilizing unconventional medicine in 1990. This figure also implied a greater number of patient visits to unconventional medicine practitioners as compared to visits to conventional medical practitioners. They added that the amount spent by these adults on unconventional treatment was also comparable to the amount spent by Americans for all hospitalizations. A telephone survey in Britain revealed a 20% usage of alternative medicine, most popular of which is the use of herbs, aroma therapy, acupuncture, massage and reflexology (Ernst, 2000).
This increasing patronage of natural and other alternative medicine may also be attributed to the increasing number of physicians who practice or recommend alternative therapies to their patients. Astin (1998) mentioned how a 1994 survey showed that more than 60% of the surveyed variably specialized physicians in Washington State, New Mexico and Israel recommended alternative therapies to their patients in the previous year while 38% had done so in the previous month. Meanwhile, 47% of these physicians use alternative therapies on themselves and 23% of the physicians have incorporated alternative therapies to their practices.
The practice of naturopathy as a discipline is also becoming more and more regulated and consolidated with the creation of professional associations such as the American Naturopathic Association. More so, various schools have been accredited to teach naturopathy such as the Bastyr University, National College of Natural Medicine and the Broucher Institute of Naturopathic Medicine. More mainstream medical schools are now tackling or offering alternative medicine. Examples of such schools are Harvard, Columbia, Georgetown and Duke (Barney, 1998).
Many conventional medical practitioners critique the usage of natural medicine. According to Ernst (2003), alternative medicine is largely opinion-based. Practitioners tend to give inconsistent and different prescriptions for the same diseases or medical conditions. For example, he cites how “100 different complementary therapies were recommended for asthma, while systemic reviews failed to back up a single treatment for this indication” (p. 1134). Ernst was also disappointed at the scarcity of systematically gathered evidence. Yet, he is not against alternative medicine per se. He advocated for a more objective and scientific usage of alternative medicine.
Why the Shift towards Natural Medicine?
Overly-commercialized Conventional Medicine
Weil (1998) tells how the commercialization of orthodox medicine is discouraging patients to continue seeking conventional treatments. He characterizes how mainstream medicine continues to become more expensive and technology-reliant. He tells how the popularity of health maintenance organizations (HMOs) has gravely affected the health care system. HMOs, he claims, want doctors to see as many patients as possible for the purpose of profit. Sadly, doctors spend less time with their patients which translate to less detailed medical and family histories, thus affecting the quality of diagnosis and treatment. In contrast, naturopathic consultations involves long and thorough interview with patients. Interviews look at medical and family histories, patient lifestyle, emotional health, and other physical features.
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Ernst (2000) points to various motivating factors for trying complementary and alternative medicine, which he divides into two – positive and negative motivations. Positive motivations consist of the attributes of alternative medicine itself while negative motivations refer to negative attributes of conventional medicine which pushes patients to try alternative medicine. Examples of those enlisted as positive motivation are the following: 1) perceptions of effectiveness; 2) perception of safety; 3) control over treatment; 4) good patient-healer relationship; and 5) non-invasive nature. Meanwhile, enumerated as negative motivations are: 1) dissatisfaction of- and case-to-case ineffectiveness of conventional medicine; 2) rejection of science and technology; 3) rejection of the establishment; and 4) desperation.
Education, Poorer Health Status and Congruence to Patient Beliefs and Principles
The national study of Astin (1998) revealed that the most significant factors leading to the use of alternative medicine are the attainment of a higher level of education, having a poorer health status and the greater congruence of alternative medicine to the patients’ values, beliefs and philosophies. Patrons, he said, tend to hold a philosophical orientation towards health and holism. He also found out that dissatisfaction with the conventional medical system is not as significant as the earlier mentioned factors.
Key Principles of Natural Medicine and their Implication to Treatment in Comparison to Conventional Medicine
As mentioned in Astin’s study (1998), the principles of natural medicine appeals significantly to patients. The key principles of naturologists can be summed up into six guidelines, which are: 1) Promote the healing power of nature; 2) First do no harm; 3) Treat the whole person; 4) Treat the cause rather than the symptom; 5) Prevention is the best cure; 6) The physician is a teacher, teaching patients to take care of themselves (Brannon & Feist, 2007).
Holistic (system-oriented vis-a-vis disease oriented)
The most common word to describe naturalistic treatment is “holistic.” This owes to natural medicine’s strong faith and reliance on the natural balance of nature. Particularly, the body was said to have a stable state that when bothered can lead to illnesses. Natural medicine also believes that excretion of wastes is a valuable part of this system and a stoppage to this normal functions lead to an unhealthy state. To illustrate, Chinese traditional medicine believes in the concept of “Chi,” a local concept which closely translates to vital energy. Chi, the Chinese believe, flows throughout the body. In line with this, illnesses are attributed to the blockage of this energy flow. Acupuncture for instance targets to solve this blockage.
Natural medicine practitioners look at patients in their wholeness as individuals. Practitioners usually look at factors that may be disrupting the body’s natural balance. They are not only focused on the physical body but also looks at the mind and spirit. It is common for natural medicine practitioners to look at the lifestyles of patients and tries to being out the natural healing capacity of the body. They advise and help patients incorporate stress reduction methods and healthy eating into their lifestyles.
This was in contrast to the treatment of conventional medicine which commonly isolates the physical body from the exclusion of mind and spirit (Weil, 1998). Barney (1998) a medical doctor who subscribes to medical complementation, criticizes the rigidity of conventional medicine in its approach to diseases. Particularly, he describes conventional treatments as disease-oriented. For instance, to address an infection, doctors may prescribe antibiotics that can weaken the kidneys. This shows a disregard to the body as a system only comprised of body parts. He said that treatment options must be expanded to fit the specific needs of each patient.
Regard for particularities
While natural medicine practitioners look at the “whole” in everyone, they also do not forget to look at the particular attributes of the individual. For instance, Ayurvedic medicine subscribes to the belief that there are different types of human bodies and that each body type must be given customized medical treatment. People who are fat or thin are also not automatically considered unhealthy in Ayurvedic medicine. Whereas in conventional medicine, normal body mass is calculated based on the height and weight of a person compared to universal standards. Also, some of the healthiest food prescribed by conventional medicine for a healthy person can be classified as unhealthy in Chinese medicine based on individual conditions. In this tradition, the definition of “healthy food” varies from person to person, even to those who may be classified by conventional medicine as being in a state of good health.
Bias towards the Natural
Natural medicine also attributes illnesses to actions and activities which veer away from natural laws of the body. For example, in macrobiotics, it is viewed that meat and poultry products being sold nowadays are very characteristically “un-natural” due to the hormones and chemicals being fed to the animals to facilitate speedy growth. Thus, natural medicine avoids or minimizes the usage of synthetic drugs such as antibiotics, radiation technologies, biomedical technologies such as vaccines and major surgery. Furthermore, it uses more natural substances and medicines found in the body and in the natural environment such as water in hydrotherapy. It has a far greater respect for herbal medicines which was used by a great number of people around the world. In contrast, conventional medical treatments can sometimes suppress the body’s efforts and capability to self-heal.
The fact that natural medicine is enjoying widening and growing support especially in the Western world gives credence to its claims of efficacy in relieving problems of the mind, body and soul. It also reflects particular weaknesses in the current conventional medical practice, which translates as negative motivations for usage of natural medicine. This validates the importance of the key characteristics of natural medicine which are: 1) holism; 2) bias towards the natural; and 3) attention to the particular. Outside the efficacy in dealing with physical problems, I think that the greatest trait espoused by natural medicine that conventional medicine lacks is in the former’s attention to the mind and body. This translates to patients’ feelings of peace, control over their bodies and feelings of being valued and respected by their healers.
Like Ernst, I believe that natural medicine and other alternative medical systems can benefit from addressing the critiques of conventional medical practitioners. In particular, it would be beneficial if natural medicine practitioners from various traditions can take steps in systematically documenting and gathering our- and other unexplored healing practices and their results. This is a positive step towards a maximization of knowledge from all over the world and the integration of various know-hows and towards more informed choices among patients.
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