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Alternative Medicine

Throughout the world there has been increased interest in alternative medicines. Many Americans have turned to them because they cannot afford normal health care. Australians have been attracted by the belief that Western medicine has become too impersonal and 'unnatural'. In India there is a long tradition of Western (scientific) medicine working alongside traditional (ayurvedic) medicine. The letter below was written to an Indian Christian who favours ayurvedic medicine.

I know you want to be useful for God, and you may believe that encouraging people to use 'natural' medicine is a fulfilment of Jesus' command to heal the sick. But we believe that scientific testing has proven to be a better way of arriving at the truth about what heals and what does not. Some 'natural' treatments have been found effective through scientific testing, and these have been incorporated into Western medicine (e.g. digitalis). But other traditional cures have been found to be ineffective or even downright dangerous.

We put 'natural' in quotes because everything is natural in one way or another. Many so-called 'drugs' come from plants. Tea and coffee, for example, are herbal, and are used to treat hyperactivity and to increase alertness. But because scientific investigation has succeeded in locating and naming the chemical in these plants (caffeine) that causes them to be effective, the remedy is then called a 'drug' and is regarded as 'unnatural'.

Drugs can have harmful effects, but even the most 'natural' chemicals, such as vitamins, can also be harmful if taken in extreme doses. Usually, the more harmless a chemical is, the less helpful it is as well. Put another way, the most powerful herbs are the ones that need to be used most carefully. Just because a chemical can be harmful doesn't mean it should not be used at all. And just because a remedy is traditional does not mean that it has no bad side effects.

The 'scientific method' (i.e. very careful examination of the facts with every possible effort to eliminate personal biases) has developed in countries which have at least given lip-service to Christian ideals about honest enquiry. Alternative medicine has largely developed in non-Christian cultures. That does not make them evil; but it does mean that they have not been rigidly tested through such things as 'double-blind experiments' (where some patients are given the medicine being tested and some are given pills or oils which appear to be the same but are of no proven medicinal value, and neither the doctors nor the patients know which is which, so that the results will not be influenced by their biases.)

Under close examination, most of the claims made by alternative practitioners have been found to be gross exaggerations. Medicines should be used because they work, and not because some practitioner claims they work.

Stacks of books have been written recommending various diets to cure various diseases, and they all include endorsements from people who say that the diet worked for them. The books often use jargon that sounds somewhat scientific; but the mere fact that the supposed cure has not been accepted by the medical fraternity suggests that readers are not being told all the facts, and the endorsements have not been based on true scientific tests.

It could be that the people endorsing the diets were helped by them; but some people will have "spontaneous remissions" without taking any medication at all. These people are likely to think that whatever they were eating or taking at the time that remission occurred was responsible for their sudden improvement in health.

Proper testing should involve thousands of cases, so that a few unexplained cures will not be taken as proof of anything. Government bodies require Western medical researchers to record every failure and every bad side effect. It is this stringent honesty that makes us favour Western medicine over alternative medicines. And it is why ayurvedic practitioners themselves regularly turn to Western medicine when they have an acute problem like a serious infection or injury.

Alternative medicine, with its personal interest in each patient, can teach Western medicine something about the need for each patient to feel that he or she is important; but Western medicine can also teach alternative practitioners a lot about honest assessment of all the facts regarding the efficacy of their prescribed remedies.

(See also Heal the Sick.)

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