Alternative, integrative, complementary, holistic and functional medicine. These are just some of terms used to describe new, emerging, understudied, unappreciated or at times dubious therapies which haven’t yet made it into mainstream medical practice. But none of these terms, in my opinion, truly reflect the their potential to become the new “conventional”.
Alternative reeks of rebellion and the fixed position of rejecting convention. Complementary suggests tools that merely assist rather than replace existing protolcols. Integrative and holistic hint at the same conclusion. Functional points to the dysfunction of the mainstream medical model; it risks aggravating the advocates of a tried and tested approach.
So what else is possible? What’s another word that could be used to describe a type of medicine that’s non-conventional but shows great promise? That doesn’t offend the existing experts but lends itself to exploring the cutting edge of discovery? That doesn’t fuel a division between ideologies but rather acts as a powerful catalyst for change? I have an idea but before I get to it lets look at alternative medicine and why it often gets rejected or dismissed.
There are a myriad of reasons why a particular modality, therapy or product might be debunked or ignored by the mainstream. Sometimes these reasons are valid; take for example “caffeine infused underwear for weight loss”.. a product that seems incredibly bogus from the word go. So it won’t come as a surprise if I tell you that it was found to be a complete scam.
Health scams induce a sense of skepticism in us all. No one wants to waist their time on a product or service that is expensive and doesn’t work. It can be heart breaking or even life threatening for people to get sucked into false claims. That’s why mainstream medicine values its clinical trials and evidence based process because they strive for proof that a particular treatment works.
However, a lack of clinical evidence doesn’t mean a particular treatment or product lacks promise. Bogus scams aside, there is a sea of valuable knowledge in the alternative medicine world and many products or therapies do demonstrate excellent potential.
Much of alternative medicine is really just understudied medicine; systems and modalities that haven’t gone through enough rigorous testing to be accepted into conventional practice. Sometimes this is due to lack of funding or lack of interest in a particular system. Other times there isn’t enough financial incentive to have a particular practice investigated. There can also be issues with the type of evaluation used; some argue that clinical models for pharma drugs are not appropriate to examine other protocols that work in a more complex and synergistic manner.
Despite these barriers it is not uncommon for an alternative idea to feed into conventional practice. In fact natural products have been the most successful source of potential drug leads in all of western medicine’s history. Take for example the anti-malerial drug quinine approved by the United States FDA in 2004, isolated from the bark of Cinchona succirubra.. which had been used for centuries for the treatment of malaria. There are endless examples like this where folk medicines were studied and became catalysts for scientific breakthroughs.
Nevertheless, there tends to be a dismissive attitude from both conventional and alternative practitioners towards each other. Conventional doctors can be incredibly skeptical, closed minded and quick to dismiss the alternative as pseudoscience, quakery, fraud or spiritual woo woo. If it hasn’t been studied, replicated, peer reviewed, published and widely agreed on then it either doesn’t work or is far to risky to recommend, they might say.
Conversely alternative practitioners are highly suspicious, sometimes outright paranoid about conventional medicine, emphasising the terrible risks of side effects, critical of a perceived failure to look at the root cause of illness, and guard their modalities from a potentially corrupt profit driven force . .. and it’s probably true to say that the thirst for profits has corrupted health care, but as we have seen above with our caffeine undies, it happens in all arenas.
I once asked a gastroenterologist if he would collaborate with a gut health nutritionist to help me resolve chronic gut pain I was experiencing. Both refused to communicate with each other. The gastroenterologist said “nutrition is not my area, plus a lot of those people are just out to get your money”.. the nutritionist said “a gastroentrologist can’t solve this, they just prescribe drugs that mask the symptoms.” It was greatly disappointing to hear the brutal dismissal of each others area of expertise. I wondered why they couldn’t simply communicate and collaborate?
This incident reflects how medicine has become specialised and segmented, sometime at the expense of the patient’s health. What would it take for this to change? For better dialogues between specialisations to become more widely adopted. For the alternative and mainstream to communicate better rather than fuelling a sense division? Surely there’s merit in the meeting of both worlds?
Thats why I think alternative medicine should be renamed emerging medicine. No longer stuck in some obscure corner out of sight and out of mind.. emerging medicine has got somewhere to go. It’s counting itself into the future. It’s not dismissing itself but it’s not dismissing the establishment either. It’s open to evaluation, it’s evolving and alive. It knows it could be the next big thing. It welcomes scientific inquiry as well as keeping the skeptics on their toes. Most importantly it fosters dialogs between the new and old and and a sense of mutual admiration and respect.
Perhaps you can think of a better word to conceptualise this health revolution? Perhaps a word is just a word and not that important at all. I would love to hear your thoughts in the comments.