Each day, we are bombarded with information on the escalating costs in medicine and medical care. The latest developments in medicine and medical research only add to the levels of health care costs required in administering new medical practices to patients. In the past few decades, health care costs have ballooned and are still expected to increase in future. As a result, there has been a fast-growing alternative method of health care administration known as alternative or complementary medicine. This is a different kind of medical care that is not given by normal physicians or medical doctors through conventional means. It is a healing practice that does not fall in the tenets of conventional medicine or one which has not been adopted consistently as it has not been proven to be consistently effective.
Dawkins defines alternative medicine as "a set of practices which cannot be tested, refuse to be tested or consistently fails tests". He adds that a healing technique ceases to be alternative when its curative properties are demonstrated in "properly controlled double-blind trials" (Dawkins:180). This shows how the concept of alternative medicine has raised varied reactions from various medical researchers and other people in the society. This paper is aimed at exploring the controversial issue of alternative medicine. It will present a critical argument on alternative medicine by assessing their positive and negative sides before giving a conclusion.
The main difference between conventional (scientific) and alternative medicine is that scientific medicine is universally tested and supported by practical scientific evidence but alternative medicine is not. On the contrary, alternative medicine does not submit itself to the practices of being tested and approved before it is used by mankind. Nevertheless, alternative medicine has helped many patients even though it has limits and dangers too. These limits and dangers are the major contentions surrounding alternative medicine as expressed by various medical stakeholders. Over five hundred types of alternative medicine are available and thousands of possible alternative treatment approaches (Billitteri:9).
The alternative medicine comes in different kinds. These include alternative therapies such as herbs, special diets, hypnosis and acupuncture that attempt to cure illnesses or help people to remain healthy. As this field of medicine continues to grow, scientific knowledge in medicine is also growing at a logarithmic rate with health experts gaining more knowledge and options to better health care. Therefore, this leaves people with the gaping question, which choicely is more preferable? To answer this question, it is wise to evaluate the trustworthiness of each option presented by alternative medicine and to know its validity. Are alternative medicine practitioners out to make quick bucks or do they have any verified evidence on the therapies they offer?
Benefits of alternative medicine
Different theories and ideas have been produced by people regarding the usefulness of alternative medicine. There have been varied arguments regarding the efficacy of alternative medicine. These methods of treatment have become so common. In fact, they are licensed in some countries, especially countries of origin. A major advantage of complementary medicine is that it offers different types of cures to a single medical condition. Health care professionals have come to realize some of these advantages and are slowly embracing the concept. Alternative medicine heals the body by treating the actual cause of a disease. This way, the root of the disease is countered and chances of it reappearing are minimal. Conversely, conventional medicine tends to treat symptoms of a disease. This presents a broad opportunity for medical practice in complementary medicine. They can expand their toolkits for assisting patients with varying health problems by focusing on root causes of the illnesses (Keegan:90).
Benefits of alternative medicine come naturally. The medicine is derived from natural materials such as herbs. Therefore, few side effects are expected to show when a patient takes complementary medicine. This means that the quality of life of the patient is improved unlike in mainstream medicine that may have notable side effects. No unnatural substance is used in making complementary medicine which; a feature that endears it to many people. On the other hand, conventional medicine is highly dependent on the pharmaceutical industry for tests on chemicals substances that can be used to cure certain ailments. A more appealing aspect of alternative medicine is that it is more flexible and adaptable.
The basic theory portrayed in this light is that one has to strike a balance with nutrition while taking alternative therapies so as to clean the body from within, besides taking the drugs. With this combination, therapies in complementary medicine tend to be more preferable than other kinds of conventional therapies. The merits of using alternative medicine are growing more and more appealing to health practitioners today. For instance, the approach towards healing the whole body to treat underlying causes of disease does not apply to conventional medicine. Looking to heal an entire problem rather than just symptoms is a positive approach towards improving the overall quality of life. In fact, measures are being proposed to bring together alternative and conventional medicine in a way that they can be more fruitful (Maddalena:167).
Previously, it was thought that alternative medicine is meant for the poor, illiterate or social misfits in the society. On the contrary, most of the alternative health care specialists are educated and mostly middle-class individuals who have the capacity to afford any type conventional medical care they wish. The alternative medical care phenomenon has brought social and economic balance as it is taking place across all disciplines and levels of life. A certain study taken a decade ago showed that in California, Oregon, and Washington, there is a high population of alternative practitioners particularly in major cities or rural settings.
These are mainly found in high-amenity urbanized areas (Gordon et al:115). Such findings have major implications on the positivity of alternative health care. First of all, distribution of alternative medicine tying with that of general medicine shows that practitioners in the alternative section are functioning with the health care system normally as generalists. This is similar to primary care physicians. Secondly, it shows that in the highlighted areas, there is a wide user base that is willing to support and adopt alternative medicine. However, demographic information on the usage of alternative medicine is not presented in the study.
Alternative medical therapies give users a range of therapeutical options that are not available with conventional medicine. This has increased the demand for alternative health care in most parts of the world. Patients can spend less on alternative medicine than in conventional treatments. Alternative medicine borrows heavily from ancient medical practices that relied on plants, natural oils, and preventive approaches. This is however opposed to conventional approaches which rely on technology to treat existing illnesses. As argued by Maddalena, increased awareness of alternative medicine would stimulate appreciation and more understanding of this kind of medical practice. More so, health personnel should be assisted to gain more knowledge in this field (Maddalena:169). With all these supportive points, one may still wonder, does complementary medicine really work?
With thousands of private alternative health practitioners offering therapies, there is no doubt about the effectiveness of alternative medicine. If the above question is posed to people in varying areas of the world, most would answer with a strong "yes". Alternative medicine has been known to exist for centuries now, having started with the Chinese and Indians as an integral part of their health systems. The Chinese have acupuncture, a technique of inserting fine needles into the body at certain points to reduce pain and induce healing (Billitteri:3). With such a rich history, there must be a high degree of effectiveness with alternative medicine. Many physicians would argue that alternative medicine is not proven to work since it is not subjected to pharmaceutical testing.
Mainstream drugs undergo rigorous testing by specialized research teams before they are released to the public for consumption. Similarly, contemporary alternative medicine has been put under tests by specialized research teams across the world. However, these results are just not well documented. It is only now that we are experiencing the outcomes of these tests with the increasing demand for alternative medicine. The increase in demand is a sure way to tell that complementary medicine is surely effective. These practices have been used for thousands of years. However, people are advised to be careful when using alternative medicines as diseases have changed with time while new ones have emerged.
Dangers of alternative medicine
Though conventional drugs have side effects, they are subjected to testing and therefore pose less harm to users. However, most of the alternative means and drugs used to cure diseases do not undergo testing. This means that these alternative drugs may have potentially dangerous biological side effects. This refutes the common fallacy that "anything that is natural cannot cause any harm." Moreover, supplement manufacturers hardly inform the government about the negative effects of their products on human bodies, unlike pharmaceutical manufacturers. On the other hand, some herbalists are usually not skilled with some calling themselves nutritional therapists even without prior nutritional knowledge. Therefore, before anyone is considered a practitioner of alternative medicine, he or she should meet the required government regulations (Phillips:23). Strict legal penalties should be inflicted on such people.
Some herbal products are known to cause serious side effects if taken indiscriminately. For example, ginseng, a Chinese herb that has been used for thousands of years to treat a range of medical conditions, can produce serious side effects if taken for long periods or improperly. People with high blood pressure or heart problems are actually advised to avoid the herb. The major concern is whether the medical practitioners administering such drugs are equipped with the appropriate knowledge regarding their specifications. Improper uses of herbal therapies are known to cause problems for the aged who react differently to these products as compared to younger people. The current demand and interest in alternative medicine are comprehensible but the full risks are still not made clear by those who deal in the practice. Possible effects of alternative therapy are therefore not well known.
A major property of herbal medicines is that they take the time to act. Patients need to exercise immense patience when using herbal remedies. This comes as a demerit to these complementary treatments. For this reason, they cannot be relied on in cases of medical emergencies including serious injuries and sudden illnesses. No diagnostic tests on alternative medicine have been taken on major medical situations such as heart attacks, appendicitis or even other types of surgery. In such cases, mainstream medicine remains more effective as it functions faster than herbs. Often, people self-dose themselves by buying medicine over the counter.
As this may pose serious health risks, it is foolhardy to ignore the instructions indicated on the dosage as this can help avoid many problems. However, with alternative medicine such as herbs, self-dosing can lead to serious harm to users. There is usually no dosage information regarding these herbal doses taken for various reasons. For instance, herbs that are harvested from the wild are very risky and there is a possibility of incorrect identification of correct herbs. Unproven alternative therapies are dangerous and can have tragic effects (O'Mathúna:24).
Popular media affects people"s perception of alternative medicine greatly. For instance, if a therapy begins to show some positive results, it is publicized to promote it even before it is proven to work. Such reports usually come from those with vested interests regarding such therapies such that they tout for unrealistic cures for critical conditions such as cancer. Alternative medicine lacks adequate regulation and such unscrupulous dealers ride on this inadequacy to fool users. The effects of this opportunism can be regrettable to the victims. Such unconventional cures as cancer cures have not been proven to be effective. In fact, these have been investigated in high-quality clinic trials and turn out to be ineffective (BR et al:1392).
In fact, only a minority of these "cures" have been subjected to clinical tests.
Efforts towards integrative medicine have been made in key parts of the world. This is the combination of alternative and conventional medicine. It includes other practices that are not necessarily referred to as medicine such as recreation and meditation. The proponents of this concept have been known to sometimes mislead patients by using placebo treatments aimed at achieving a placebo effect. Critics of integrative medicine propose that patients are lied to about alternative medicines. Patients are not provided with accurate information regarding the medications they take. Some critics call it quackery as it is not proven to be completely effective. International health bodies such as the WHO have placed strategies towards traditional medicine. The aim is to understand their roles in health care and the problems they pose when used in medical therapy administration. Such efforts by the international community may serve to help users to gain first-hand information regarding alternative medicine before using it blindly (Alam:74).
The advantages of alternative medicines can be more than discussed in this study, and so are the disadvantages. However, complementary medicine can be a good alternative way of approaching selected medical situations if applied appropriately. In my opinion, it is always prudent for a person to seek adequate information before taking any form of alternative medicine so as to know the benefits and side effects it may have on them. Since possible complications are bound to arise, discussing health matters with health care providers is a preferable means of dealing with illnesses before adopting any form of treatment.
There are as many side effects to alternatives as there are benefits. However, if proper information is provided on each type of treatment, this form of medical care can be alternatively used in place of conventional methods since nothing is perfect. It is best to consult one's doctor before taking any alternative therapies as they may interact negatively with regular medicines. In cases of wrong alternative dosages, regular medications have been found to be useful in preventing dangerous effects. The effects of herbal medicine may depend on the user also. Therefore, one needs to know the nature of the drug that he or she is taking and the possible side effects it may have on him or her. Most importantly, it is good to know that alternative medicine such as herbs may be effective but are not capable of treating all types of ailments.