In this health article, I will take a look at Eastern and Western approaches to medicine and how medicine might look in the future.
Medicine in the East has tended to work with the whole person and their environment, looking at the big picture, working on the principle that everything is connected and nothing is separate.
This is what is meant by holistic. It is approached with intuition, from a creative, right brain perspective. It treats each person as an individual, owing to the wide range of variables that may be contributing to a person’s health, which will be unique to each person. Therapies are tailored to the individual.
Examples of holistic treatments include acupuncture, reflexology and also herbal medicine, which uses the whole plant, with many ingredients working to balance different parts of the body, to work better together. They are often subtle and gentle in their effects and recognise the mind-body connection and that our emotions and beliefs can affect our physical health. Physical symptoms are seen as helpful signals, informing us to get back into balance, tune into and respond to their signals.
Traditional Eastern holistic medicine is derived from ancient cultures and is preventative, encouraging balance in the body, promoting and maintaining health. The Eastern way is to adapt to and live in harmony with the environment.
Medicine in the West as we know it, by contrast, started very recently, at around the turn of the twentieth century with the advent of the modern pharmaceutical industry. It has tended to look in detail at parts of the body in isolation, approached from a logical, linear, left brain perspective.
Western medicine is based on a single purified chemical drug targeted to the specific part of the body showing a symptom. These have tended to be made as a “one size fits all” drug, designed to use in all patients with a particular symptom, without needing to know too much about the individual or the route cause of their symptom. These medicines are prescribed, to remove the symptoms, but not the underlying cause. As such, symptoms will persist unless the patient identifies the cause or continues to take the medicine, which may cause side effects due to the targeted nature of a drug.
The Western drug model, is now starting to become more personalised, by understanding variables, such as genetics to stratify patients with a symptom into subsets and identify those likely to benefit from a drug and those that wouldn’t benefit or may have side effects. This would require a genetic or blood marker test at the doctors to prescribe a drug. This is still a long way off actually happening in clinical practice and requires much research and resource. It is still not truly individualised but based on population subsets.
Interestingly there seems to be a global shift in approaches to medicine with an upsurge of interest in holistic person centred approaches in the West and a rapid expansion of the pharmaceutical industry in the East. Just as we need the left and right hemispheres of the brain to work together to give full meaning of a situation, we need both the Eastern and Western medicine approaches to come together and improve healthcare provision.
With the burden on our NHS of long-term chronic health conditions, as well as side effects of long-term use of drugs such as pain killers, not to mention the cost to the NHS of hospital admissions due to adverse drug reactions, there is great merit in integrating well regulated traditional medicine (TM) approaches with Western medicine. Indeed the World Health Organisation has put in place a TM strategy 2104-2023 which aims to integrate TM to “capitalise on the potential contribution of TM to improve health services and health outcomes.”
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