Popular opinion in our society is divided over the subject of healthcare. With the rise of “alternative” medicine, “conventional” or “Western” medicine is under scrutiny, and people are taking sides in the debate without truly understanding the difference between the two approaches. Common misconceptions include the idea that Western medicine is focused on pushing drugs for the treatment of specific issues, whereas alternative medicine is focused on natural or holistic approaches to healing. There may be some truth to this notion, but the real difference is in the fundamental methodology of the schools of medicine.
The heart of conventional medicine is the scientific method, or empirical observation. Some understand the scientific method well, but for many others, the concept is completely foreign. In a nutshell, it involves developing a hypothesis (similar to an educated guess about what will happen), designing a controlled experiment to test the hypothesis, observing the results over a number of repetitions, then drawing conclusions from those results. In healthcare, this translates to clinical trials, peer-reviewed publications, and on-going surveillance of treatments in everyday usage. For the conventional medical world to take a treatment seriously, the effectiveness of treatment, specifically for what it is meant to treat, must have been repeatedly demonstrated; the treatment must have an established safe dosage; and it must be weighed against other possible treatments.
By comparison, the method and definition of alternative medicine is less specific. It is a kind of catch-all term for interventions that are not included in conventional medicine—in other words, it is any medicine that is not based on the scientific method. Prominent practices of this kind include traditional cultural medicines, spiritual therapy, naturopathy, and homeopathy. The credibility and popularity of these treatments within the groups that use them are primarily based on the authority of cultural and religious tradition, general consensus, and individual personal experiences. This is the main source of the controversy surrounding alternative medicine.
The primary factor that excludes alternative therapies from conventional medical practice is their lack of the rigorous, evidence-based testing that is so foundational to the conventional approach. This is not to say that the legitimacies of alternative therapies are not being researched—they are. The problem is that documented trials of alternative technology are relatively small, compared to the large number of trials needed to validate findings by the scientific method. Alternative medicine in Canada is only moderately regulated, and these regulations vary from province to province.
Alternative medicine takes a more qualitative approach to healing: the reasoning is that if you feel better, the treatment must have worked. (On the other hand, conventional medicine is grounded in quantitative data—measurements, values, numbers.) There may be a place for perception-oriented results in healthcare; if a person feels better after taking a sugar pill, who is to say that “placebo” is not an effective form of treatment? While the evidence for alternative medicine doesn’t withstand conventional scrutiny, if people find relief from symptoms by using alternative therapies, evidence is not essential for users to benefit from a treatment. Though pragmatic, this approach does raise more abstract moral concerns. In the end, the decision to choose one approach over the other requires an assessment of personal values and is in large part the responsibility of the individual.
Both critics and supporters of conventional medicine would agree that as an approach it has certain weaknesses. Firstly, it is centred around prescription drugs, yet the primary concern of your average pharmaceutical company is making money, not preserving public health. This can compromise the scientific method by bringing human greed into the equation. In addition, published research is only intellectually accessible to a select portion of the population. Many people do not understand statistics well enough to interpret the results of medical studies and are not in a position to make educated choices. Lastly, the clinical trial process is sometimes faulty. On occasion, negative side effects of drugs are not detected within the timeframe of drug development; they may surface many years later, after the damage has already been done.
Then again, alternative medicine falls short in similar ways. There is a huge market for natural products, making profit often as big a concern for alternative providers as it is for conventional drug purveyors. A related problem is that, although claims made about natural health products’ efficacy are regulated to a degree, the general public is not usually equipped with the knowledge of how to correctly interpret these claims. They are often expertly worded to accentuate the positive rather than give an accurate assessment. “Natural” is popularly perceived as always being good. However, many natural, plant-derived products are far less effective than their more concentrated, processed equivalents. They can even be harmful, or interact negatively with helpful medication.
All this being said, both approaches may have a place in our health-care system going forward, as long as they continue to adapt and minimize their weaknesses. In the future, we will likely see changes within each system in order to better suit the needs of the population. The real challenge however, lies in education of the individual. As much as possible, people must try to fully understand the real differences between their options for medical intervention.