Alternative Medicine and Global Health

Clarissa Lee also blogs at HASTAC (, and

On November 12, 2010, the Global Health Working Group organized a public lecture (see video) and Q&A session with Gerard Bodeker, Chair of Global Initiative for Traditional Systems (GIFTS) of Health at the Division of Medical Sciences at the University of Oxford and Adjunct Professor of Epidemiology at the Mailman School of Public Health at Columbia University. It was both an introduction into the public policy of alternative healthcare as well as an insight into how the medical system works in relation to existing healthcare superstructures.  (See Bodeker’s research and publications here  and here.)

According to Bodeker, the World Health Organization’s (WHO) leading concerns are Hepatitis B, H1N1 and HIV – and it’s doing all it can to deal with them. In trying to combat disease epidemics, the WHO is actively looking for alternative research methods to obtain insights into the different functions of the body.  One of these alternatives is integrative medicine, which seeks to combine modern medical practices with traditional and complementary therapeutics.  Integrative medicine reaffirms the importance of the relationship between practitioner and patient.  Its focus is on the whole person.  It centers on evidence-based research to ensure the scientific validity of the alternative treatments. The WHO’s Global Atlas on Traditional, Complementary and Alternative Medicine, co-edited by Bodeker, is the organization’s main vehicle for expanding and continuing research into these areas. According to Bodeker, this research is expanding so quickly that the Atlas has to be continuously updated to reflect the latest findings.

By definition, traditional medicine refers to health practices, approaches, knowledges and beliefs incorporating plant, animal and mineral-based medicine. Unsurprisingly, in many parts of the world, modern medicine is alternative medicine.  At the same time, however, traditional, complementary, informal medicines have become mainstream in contemporary Western society, where they are common features of mind-body care. According to Bodeker, in the West women are the majority users of traditional and complementary medicine, due to their default roles (in most cases) as the family’s caregiver and their health-consciousness.  They account for over 60% of individual prescriptions and 75 to 80% of over-the-counter drug purchases.  Research suggests that women outnumber men to the ratio of 2:1 in the use of traditional and complementary medicine in industrialized countries. In the case of the US, studies have found that women use food supplements and mind-body therapeutics at a rate that is five times higher than men.  At the moment, there is very little research done on the practices of traditional, complementary and alternative medicine in Asia - though observers of Asian practices could easily show that such therapeutic practices are common across both sexes.

Alternative therapeutic practices are so popular in Britain that the people are willing to pay-out-of-pocket to obtain such care despite being recipients of free national healthcare (which, obviously, does not include many alternative medical practices). In Britain, the National Health Service (NHS) covers only 10% of such therapeutic practices.  By contrast, the national healthcare systems in Japan and Korea include coverage of many traditional, complementary and alternative practices. Since 1976, the Ministry of Health and Welfare of Japan has approved 147 Kampo formulations, as well as their individual herbal components, to be covered by their NHS system.

Bodeker claims that men tend to approach healthcare symptomatically (to treat symptoms of their ailments) while women take a more ecological (mind-body systemic) approach.  Much work is being done now to spread information on alternative healthcare practices and in enlarging the scope of research questions asked about these practices.  Outreach is also being made, particularly in the UK, to those who fund health research so that they will be aware of what matters to patients and clinicians. At this point, much of medicinal therapy is decided upon by practitioners of modern medicine without any attempt to consult with practitioners of alternative medicines. There is a need to increase dialog and informational flows on both sides. In July 2010, at the World Congress of Bioethics in Singapore, Bodeker organized the first panel on bioethics and Asian and Traditional Medicine.

Various programs have been established in parts of Asia to aid impoverished communities with difficulty accessing basic healthcare, to encourage and motivate them in becoming proactive in the care of their family members. In India, the Herbal Home Gardens program was implemented across over 6,000 households where different kinds of plants are grown for addressing different ailments. A study found that the Herbal Home Garden program mainly benefited women and children in poor communities—in other words, the poorest of the poor. Public health work of a similar order is also taking place at the Thai/Myanmar border.