What is the role of traditional medicine in the modern world?
In Southeast Asia, traditional medicine is widely accepted by many people. From herbal concoctions to acupuncture and indigenous styles of massage, many Singaporeans – and those living in the region – have memories of their parents relying on these remedies to alleviate various ailments. Today, many continue to use traditional medicine when the situation calls for it. In many ways, traditional and Western medicine coexist in our part of the world to offer patients a wider range of options when they are seeking a cure for what ails them.
It is only in more recent history that the Western countries, where medicine is rooted in scientific discovery, has begun to pay more attention to traditional medicines such as TCM (traditional Chinese medicine) and Ayurveda. In June, the World Health Organization added a chapter on TCM to its International Classification of Diseases, an important document that is used as a benchmark for diagnosis and health insurers.
While global advocates of integrative medicine have hailed this addition as a positive step towards greater mainstream acceptance, there are also those who caution that such alternative remedies are unscientific and not supported by robust clinical trials, hence resulting in unreliable outcomes. There are also some legitimate critiques of TCM and other alternative therapies – for example, some ancient texts advocate for the use of rhinoceros horns, pangolin scales and donkey hides in medicines. There is little evidence that these concoctions will deliver results but the demand is so high that many of these animals now face the threat of extinction.
To this mix comes a recent uptick in naturopaths and healers who tout new age remedies. At Speedoc, we have encountered patients who ask us if chia seeds, green juices and pink salt lamps will help the medical conditions of their loved ones. Indeed, it is one of the paradoxes of the modern world that even as we get ever more advanced in scientific progress, mankind seems to cling even more dearly to homespun remedies.
For our doctors, the answer is clear. As long as the alternative remedy does not harm the patient and helps him or her feel better or more comfortable, then you will have our blessing. More importantly, we urge the patient to not stop taking his or her medication. If this is adhered to and we can determine that the herbal supplement (if any) does not contraindicate the prescribed medicine, we are happy that the adoption of integrative therapies may benefit the patient’s healing process.
We also take the view that TCM should not be dismissed in its entirety. Some important medicines, such as artemisinin, the gold standard malaria drug, have already been discovered after extensive research into certain TCM herbs. With further scientific research on herbal remedies, there is a high likelihood that more efficacious therapies could be found.
So, what is needed then, is more vigorous clinical trials and research to be conducted on traditional medicine as that is the key issue that the Western community has with traditional medicine. This is already happening. For example, a number of institutes of higher education around the world have established departments to study traditional medicine. Singapore’s own Nanyang Technological University, has an “East Meets West” double degree programme in biomedical sciences and Chinese medicine. With a greater understanding of modernised Chinese medicine and knowledge of biomedical sciences, these graduates will go far in helping to bring scientific rigor to the practice of TCM. In this manner, the gap between Eastern and Western medicine can be bridged to arrive at a happy medium.