Westerners Turn to Complementary and Alternative Medicine

Not so long ago Westerners were contemptuous of complementary and alternative medicine (CAM), of which traditional Chinese medicine is an important component, and regarded it as an unscientific form of treatment compared with evidence-based modern medicine, which emanated from the West. This is no longer true. It has been fast gaining acceptance in the West since the 1980s.

CAM can be simply defined as medical practices or interventions that are neither taught widely at Western medical schools nor generally available at Western hospitals. It covers a diverse field including herbal medicine, spiritual healing, chiropractic, osteopathy, acupuncture, relaxation therapy like yoga and meditation and massage, to name a few.

The informed consensus is that modern medicine is especially effective in treating acute illnesses requiring surgery, while CAM scores in providing cures to some chronic conditions. Numerous Westerners nowadays travel to the East seeking last resort cures, after modern medicine had failed to remove their sufferings. Many found the answer in acupuncture, herbal treatment or massage, among others.

What has led to the upsurge of CAM in the West as an alternative health care for certain illnesses, and why do its fervent adherents swear by it? Increasingly, Westerners have become disenchanted with modern medicine because of its high costs of investigations and treatment, and sometimes long delays. Further, the taking of prescribed drugs or injections often carry varying side effects, some could be seriously harmful over time. On the other hand, CAM is certainly far less expensive and presents little or no harmful side effects in the hands of responsible practitioners. It has more affinities with nature and patients have control over the treatment. By emphasising holistic treatment and prevention of illnesses, it aims at building up a firm physical foundation as a prerequisite to good health.

Be that as it may, a compelling complaint against CAM is that, to a significant extent, a large number of its practitioners are self-taught and therefore do not possess professional qualifications from reputable medical institutions. This often makes it difficult for the public to distinguish the “black sheep” from the credible ones and, consequently, would allow “quacks” to damage the image of the profession.

The inroads made by CAM at the expense of modern medicine are clearly discernible from authoritative Western surveys. For example, the US survey reveals that, in 1997, Americans made 629 million visits to the CAM providers, as against 386 million visits to the primary care physicians. I understand that no such survey has been undertaken in Singapore. Its time that one was done. The users of CAM are known to be high here.

It is unlikely that CAM will replace modern medicine as the dominant vehicle of health care for the Western public and elsewhere. But it does have a role in modern health care, and it is in the public interest for both the modern medicine and CAM practitioners to find a common ground for ongoing professional dialogues so that knowledge in their respective fields can be usefully exchanged.

From the above trends, it does not take a genius to predict that the future of world medicine lies in health care givers, both East and West, working together and to incorporate the best elements that the other system can offer into their own health services so as to provide the best possible medical care for their patients.

Lam Pin Foo
December 22, 2003

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