A core purpose of medicine is to relieve suffering. Across the world, medicine has been evolving over thousands of years towards serving this purpose. Some of the oldest systems of medicine continue to thrive across different parts of the world. While traditional systems evolved through experiential wisdom, faith and belief, modern systems evolved through reason, analysis, and experimental evidence. People’s health seeking behavior, on the other hand, is influenced by the prevailing culture, beliefs, prior experience, peer reference, ease of access, and the cost of services.

Advances in modern medicine have significantly improved the health status of people. And yet, people continue to suffer from unrelieved chronic pains, unexplained physical symptoms, and a growing burden of life long non-communicable diseases and mental illnesses. Costs of modern healthcare have been growing faster than economic growth across countries, leading to impoverishment and inequity.

There is a growing emphasis on the social determinants of health, healthy living, and prevention of illness. A similar shift is seen towards a more holistic approach to health and disease. Traditional systems of medicine are being increasingly subjected to experimental evidence to understand their safety and effectiveness so as to integrate these systems with modern systems of medicine. This evolution underlies the concept of Integrative Medicine, wherein the best of both systems of medicine is used, as per patient’s choice and response.

A system of medicine, be it traditional or modern, has to be safe and effective in promoting health, preventing disease, treating an illness, and providing relief from chronic, incurable diseases. A system must also demonstrate cost-effectiveness. Scientific analyses of traditional drugs, formulations, and methods may yield newer drugs and therapies. A lack of evidence on traditional therapies is not equivalent to a lack of efficacy.

India is home to Ayurveda, one of the oldest systems of medicine. There are formal education systems for these traditional systems of medicine and are grouped as AYUSH (Ayurveda, Unani, Siddha, and Homeopathy). A separate central ministry oversees the AYUSH systems of medicine. India has close to 800,000 professionals qualified in the AYUSH systems of medicine. While a majority of them choose medical practice, some of them opt for careers in public health, health management, and health informatics. Some even practice in allopathic settings as physician assistants. AYUSH professionals are also deployed at primary healthcare centers.

AYUSH professionals are increasingly using the same diagnostic tools that are used by allopathy professionals to diagnose underlying conditions and monitor the efficacy of their treatments. Conversely, allopathic professionals refer cases to AYUSH Practioner for some chronic ailments for which allopathic drugs are considered ineffective or unsafe. Patients suffering from chronic pain, allergy, bowel disorders, and mental disorders tend to seek alternative systems of medicine. A sizeable number of patients with diabetes and high blood pressure prefer treatment from traditional systems.

In an effort to provide holistic care to identified patients, some leading medical institutes in the West are starting departments for Integrative Medicine for the adoption of certain well-known traditional systems of medicine. Advanced research is being undertaken to validate the safety and efficacy of these practices and to understand the possible mechanisms behind their efficacy. Yoga and meditation are among the most widely studied traditional systems of wellness.

Traditional systems of medicine are an integral part of India’s health system. They have survived and evolved over millennia in meeting the healthcare needs of people. They continue to be the only source of healthcare in many underserved areas across the county. Globally, there is a growing acceptance towards some aspects of these systems, with increasing scientific validation of their safety and efficacy. A well-designed research study showed that yoga-based cardiac rehabilitation was comparable to modern cardiac rehabilitation methods. Unlike modern systems that requires elaborate infrastructure and manpower, yoga is simple to administer, amenable for home practice and is highly cost-effective.

A broader and more rational integration of traditional systems of medicine into modern medical systems may help in strengthening India’s health systems.

Dr Krishna Reddy Nallamalla
President, InOrder Country Director, ACCESS Health International. 

*Photo Credit: Chicago Health Online