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Introduction to Alternative Medicine and Allopathic Medicine

The term alternative medicine was coined in the 1800s to distinguish between care systems of the Eastern world and care systems of the West – which are referred to as allopathic medicine. Allopathic medicine is evidence-based and consists of conventional medical practices that are “disease-centric” and focused on symptom-specific treatment using pharmacological, biomedical, or invasive methods. Conversely, alternative medicine takes on a holistic, “whole-body” approach that is rooted in ancient records, tradition, energy alignment, balance, and holistic supplementation.1 In our modern medical system, skepticism around alternative healing methods propagates judgment and mistrust that undermines a patient’s quality of care while allowing the special interests of industry and business to jeopardize  their overall wellbeing. However, carefully evaluating factors that impact different models of care enable us to empower patients and healthcare professionals to integrate holistic methods in American healthcare practices, improve modern mainstream allopathic healthcare methods, and nurture a more comprehensive and patient-centered approach to healing. 

Challenges in Integrating Alternative Healing into Modern Healthcare

Alternative medicine contains a vast realm of different methods and treatments that have shown tangible benefits and efficacy in activating specific brain regions, stabilizing heart abnormalities, and inhibiting stress and inflammatory pathways – which serve as an arbitrator for 60-80% of all primary care physician visits. Despite substantial corroboration in alternative methods, there continues to be dissent over the optimal method of treatment as many physicians lack the proper training and knowledge to provide insight into adjunct therapies. Unfortunately, very few medical school curriculums offer mind-body electives or holistic treatment classes as a required educational component. This has led to an alarming lack of physician and patient awareness of alternative therapies. According to a 2006 study on alternative and complementary medicine, 76% of general practice physicians were “poorly informed” on natural remedies and alternative therapies. Of that percentage, 77.3% expressed fear regarding their patients administering natural treatments without disclosing it.3 

Benefits and Efficacy of Alternative Healing Methods

This severe communication gap proliferates further according to a study which found that two-thirds of chronically ill patients use dietary supplements but only 30% discussed their usage with their physicians. Therefore, this dangerous communication gap hinders the capacity for delivering effective care in the doctor-patient relationship. These oversights can prove to be especially harmful as many chronically ill patients take prescription medications that have a greater risk for supplement-drug interactions. In rural areas and low socioeconomic regions, this discrepancy in communication is heightened due to the stigma attached to home remedies and opting against allopathic treatments. In her oral history interview, Janet Sasser Ross highlights the backlash her grandmother faced from her family and clinicians when choosing to treat her skin cancer with a natural concoction of apple cider vinegar and hydrogen peroxide instead of choosing to undergo traditional chemotherapy and radiation. When battling a grueling disease, not having a support system behind one’s treatment decisions can lead to self-isolation and reluctance to seek professional guidance due to fear of dismissal or scrutiny. Instead, fostering increased understanding and integrative mindsets into modern medicine can allow patients to hone their autonomy in treatment decisions and supplement holistic methods in a safe and effective manner.

Limitations of Allopathic Care and the Need for Holistic Approaches

It is also important to note that even allopathic care has its limitations. America’s modern healthcare system is poorly equipped to treat chronic, idiopathic, and noncommunicable diseases. Moreover, many of our current solutions only offer symptom-specific alleviation instead of targeting and mitigating the root cause of a disease – which may be unknown or multi-faceted. In these situations, alternative treatment approaches offer potential solutions. The oral history account of Tally-Brame Ebony exemplifies the benefits of adopting an integrative approach. Ebony notes her tribulations with psoriasis which is an idiopathic chronic disease that leads to scaly skin inflammation. Instead of resorting to allopathic methods such as the application of steroids or administering oral medication, she sought to take control of her flare-ups by proactively identifying triggers and restoring balance through natural skin rubs. Her journey emphasizes the inherent value in holistic healing practices and their immense potential in bridging the gaps with diseases that are rooted in patient-centric components that demand an all-encompassing analysis for sustainable treatment progress. Although it requires significantly more effort, time, and patience for the physician to inform and guide a patient through associated lifestyle modifications and to evaluate optimal and relevant natural treatments for their condition, this approach boasts considerably better long-term results in promoting patient well-being – especially when compared to simply prescribing a drug or other form of symptomatic allopathic treatment that fails to address underlying propagating factors. Not to mention, treating chronic conditions that have predominantly lifestyle components with prescription medication is severely counterintuitive. 

Navigating Pharmaceutical Influence and Access to Care

Lack of awareness combined with the interplay of special interests lobbying for allopathic care creates a tricky landscape for physicians to navigate. Modern medicine is hugely fueled by lucrative pharmaceutical interests evidenced by the billions of dollars spent monthly on drug advertising in 2022. This financial drive steers attention away from alternative care models and increases reliance on big pharma, exacerbating accessibility issues and deterring those unable to afford expensive treatments and medications from seeking care in the first place which leads to poor health outcomes and higher rates of comorbidities. Implementation of mind-body practices into our western medicine system can help lower dependence on pharmaceuticals and expensive procedures which add to our ballooning healthcare cost burden. Prevalence of certain alternative and complementary therapies such as yoga, biofeedback, supplementation, and meditation have risen in popularity across the US over the past decade for their associations with neurobiological, physiological, and genomic changes. Additionally multiple randomized clinical trials have shown improvements in health outcomes due to these therapies for conditions worsened by chronic stress such as anxiety, depression, inflammatory bowel disease, cardiovascular disease, and chronic pain. These practices also yield societal benefits in promoting empathy, mindfulness, and tolerance. One hospital in the US, Benson-Henry Institute for Mind Body Medicine at Massachusetts General Hospital is championing alternative methods by routinely pointing patients towards Stress Management and Resiliency Training Programs (SMART) from primary physicians and specialists.

Promoting Integration and Access to Alternative Healing

Integration of alternative healing systems lowers the barriers for healthcare access by alleviating financial burden, enhancing accessibility, and promoting quality of care. This shift promotes a sustainable, long-term approach to health, contrasting with reactive methods that merely tackle symptoms as they escalate and the body deteriorates. Incorporating alternative healing complements proactive treatment strategies, which focus on preemptively addressing concerns and considering the holistic well-being of individuals. Restructuring of the Western medical system through an integrative approach will allow us to pave the way for improved doctor-patient understanding and a more effective healthcare paradigm. 


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