Alternative medicines are increasingly becoming a mainstream therapy in healthcare. When a patient needs to choose a treatment for a disease, besides conventional medicine, there is another option: complementary therapy. These are used as a complement to orthodox medicine.
Population in developed countries is ageing and this has a severe impact on the populations’ health. The human body is not ready for these changes and thus ageing is one of the reasons for degenerative diseases.
There is a vast number of alternative therapies that use different methodologies and that aim at different targets. These are claimed to focus on the root of the disease and not only treating the symptoms (e.g., high blood pressure). These are alerts that are triggered when there is something not functioning properly within the human body. Prevention also plays an important role in the treatments. By not focussing only on the disease but also on the environment and precedents, these methods are able to tackle the core problem directly achieving long-term results. There is, however, another form of prevention: promoting a better lifestyle. Educating for having a healthy diet (it is a very important driver of health) and exercising are two examples.
It is not unknown that the psychological effect has a big impact in the health status, even in conventional medicine – “the placebo effect”. The alternative medicine treats the person in a systemic way, considering the body, mind and emotions and can sometimes be considered a “placebo” treatment.
In the UK, King George VI promoted the alternative medicines with the inclusion homeopathy in Britain’s NHS. They are believed to have benefits superior to its costs. For instance, lower-back pain is associated with an output loss of about £11B per annum. This loss can be partially recovered if workers can restart working and stop receiving social security benefits. Chiropractic is a possible solution for this issue and it has had high rates of success. Anti-depressant treatments with St John’s wort have strong evidence of effectiveness and its cost is about 6% of equivalent prescription drugs.
Nevertheless, the lack of scientific and statistical confirmation of efficacy and effectiveness is putting alternative medicines in jeopardy. In July 2011 the New England Journal of Medicine tested traditional and alternative practices (acupuncture and dummy inhalers) on asthmatic patients. Results were that conventional therapy had improved lungs function by 20% against 7% in the other therapies. Surprisingly, though, patients felt the therapies to be as effective.
There is also the inertia of the scientific community and medical bodies to include these practices in the academia and accept them as ‘valid’ treatments probably due to incentives. In fact, the incentive is that doctors are in the business of sickness and not in that of health. As they only have customers which are not healthy.
All in all, although a healthier lifestyle would be optimal, many people are just not willing to do this sacrifice. As a result, to act on the demand for healthcare, customers should be more educated towards the implications of their actions on their health.
In addition, there is an important ethical implication. In some cases, when ‘placebo-like’ treatments are prescribed, the patient’s life might be at stake. This should be addressed very carefully.
Summing up, what the society should aim at is to have combined therapies in order to focus on the health of the patient as a whole and not only at the symptoms. In this sense, the main barrier would be the prevailing scientific mind-set, which often disregards the alternative therapies.