Traditional and Modern Medicine: Mutual Growth or Mutually Exclusive?

Traditional medical practice is both a historical artifact in some areas but an actively-circulating practice on others. Cultural texts and depictions of traditional practices have illuminated the evolution of these knowledge systems throughout history. Traditional medicine is generally associated with a variety of practices, both physical and psychological, including acupuncture, herbal medicine, and tai chi (Hopp & Shurtleff, 2019). However, since the development of modern scientific and clinical methods, researchers have found many practices of traditional medicine to be ineffective as compared to more modern practices. For instance, acupuncture patients appear to be vulnerable to the placebo effect, in which participants who were given a false treatment experienced similar results to those receiving a real acupuncture treatment. Studies involving Chinese herbal medicine have also been unable to conclusively demonstrate their effectiveness (Hopp & Shurtleff, 2019). Despite this, the prevalence of traditional medicine practice has increased in recent years, prompting questions as to whether these practices still hold any value and how they should be appraised in relation to Western medicine.

Figure 1. The Compendium of Materia Medica, for instance, written in 1578, is still regarded today as one of the most complete chronicles of traditional herbs

Despite their centuries-long existence, many traditional medical practices have endured to the present day. In particular, traditional Chinese medicine is still held in esteem by Chinese citizens, with one study citing the “cultural affinity” that many feel towards these practices (Chung, 2014). Both in China and elsewhere, it has been regarded to have a supplemental role to modern Western practices (Chung, 2014). Some practices within Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) have a relevancy and a resemblance to currently established practices, such as the approach to patient diagnosis embodied by the mantra of “inspection, auscultation-olfaction, inquiry, palpitation.” This hands-on model of assessing a patient’s state of well-being through a holistic approach has its parallels in Western medicine, which can often involve diagnostic imaging, blood testing, laboratory tests, and other specialized examination methods. Another relevant perspective of TCM is that an individual’s well-being is strongly connected to their relationship with the surroundings and natural environment (Dong, 2013). Although the body-nature connection does not necessarily serve as the central focus behind Western medicine treatments, the impact of the surrounding environment on an individual’s health is certainly manifested in areas such as epigenetics (What is epigenetics?, 2020). Natural medicine has also formed the basis for the development of many pharmaceuticals in Western medicine. Between 1940 and 2002, a little over half of all anticancer drugs were derived primarily from natural products. In fact, natural sources like T. brevifolia yew and Taxol are presently being investigated as ovarian cancer treatment drugs  (Yuan et al., 2016). 

Even when considering the various overlaps between traditional and Western medicine, the validity of traditional practices is still called into question. Since modern science has put many traditional practices to the test and found their efficacies falling short, does this mean traditional medicine should be forgotten altogether? Although this may, at first, seem to be the logical way forward, empirical evidence-based appraisal of these practices largely overlooks their cultural value. For instance, traditional medicine offers a more holistic view of well-being that can be safely applied to an individual’s day-to-day preventative health choices, starting with the idea that one’s natural environment and surroundings can influence health. TCM often prompts individuals to assess outside factors that may be influencing their health. In contrast, Western medicine often places emphasis on clinical-based assessments of health which, though a crucial component, is often not applicable in day-to-day lifestyle choices that influence health and contribute to disease prevention. Thus, traditional medicine’s emphasis on disease prevention, as compared to the Western emphasis on treatment over prevention, promotes a more progressive outlook on personal health and health consciousness. With many of traditional medicine’s virtues lying in sustainability, holistic assessments of health, and use of natural medicines, it holds great potential in developing countries to stimulate the development of medicine. For instance, in Cameroon, botanical knowledge within traditional medicine is considered by the pharmaceutical industry as “a source for the identification of bio-active agents that can be used in the preparation of synthetic medicine” (Fokunang et al., 2011). Developing countries often pay 20 to 30 times the international reference price for even basic medications (Silverman et al., 2019). With the high cost for pharmaceuticals serving as a barrier to healthcare development in low-income nations, traditional medicine based solutions can play an important role. The World Health Organization has collaborated with the Cameroon government to integrate traditional medicine into their healthcare system and “institutionalize a more harmonized integration of TM practices by the year 2012,” with the expected benefits being used to promote economic development in the healthcare sector (Fokunang et al., 2011).

Figure 2. Aretmisia annua is a traditional Chinese herb that researchers have found to be effective against malaria

Another aspect of promise is the current research into the use of the Chinese herb Artemisia annua as a treatment against malaria (Traditional Medicine, n.d.). Evidence from recent studies support the implementation of A. annua dried leaf tablets into the arsenal of drugs to combat malaria and other artemisinin-susceptible diseases,” with Nature hailing it as “a vital partner in the global fight against malaria” (Weathers et al., 2014;  Sawyer, 2012). WHO furthermore acknowledges the role that traditional medicine will play in the future, with their current integration strategy aiming to “[develop] proactive policies and [implement] action plans that will strengthen the role traditional medicine plays in keeping populations healthy” (Traditional, n.d.). 

With a history spanning thousands of years of human civilization, traditional medicine exists in the modern world as an important living cultural artifact. Although many of its medical claims have been proven ineffective through empirical examination, the field of study is being investigated to assess its potential in pharmaceutical development, affordability, and accessibility in developing countries. The history of medicine is not only a scientific depository but also a piece of human history, a history that continues to unfold with every modern advancement.

Edited by Siya Malhotra


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