As an Acupuncturist, I regard myself as part of the ‘Complementary Medicine’ or even the ‘Traditional Medicine’ community. In all the years I have practiced I have never really seen myself as engaged in something called ‘Alternative’ Medicine. Complementary versus Alternative… what’s in a word? I would just like to take a minute or two to argue that there might actually be a world of difference. Even people within the profession often use the two terms interchangeably, but to me, at the heart of this is a debate about two opposing mindsets. If only for the sake of better clarity, I think this is a debate worth having.
The crux of the matter, I believe, lies in attitudes towards what I’m going to call Western Medicine (yet another label!). In this case I’m using ‘Western Medicine’ to refer to the standard medical profession as practiced in this country by the NHS. It’s what you get when you go to see your GP, or spend time in hospital. We’ve all had some, and arguably many of us might not now be alive if we hadn’t! This is essentially a science and technology-based approach to human health that relies as its mainstays upon drug therapies, for example antibiotics, and surgery. It also of course includes an entire range of modalities such as physiotherapy and psychotherapy.
Western Medicine is a vast, highly sophisticated system, that, love it or hate it, is not going away anytime soon. It will most likely continue to be the dominant system for delivering health across the world for the imaginable future. But inevitably, there are problems with Western Medicine, and I believe that it is the response to these problems that defines the difference between Complementary and Alternative Medicine.
So what are the problems with Western Medicine? Some are very obvious: drugs frequently induce very unwelcome side-effects, sometimes requiring even more drugs to combat those effects. Surgery is also not without its hazards. Then there exists an entire range of concerns about the influence of corporate financial interest (the dreaded Big Pharma) or cynical political interference. Arguably some drugs are not tested adequately, and so on and so forth. There really are good grounds to be concerned about many of these issues, even if they do provide endless fodder for some of the wilder conspiracy theories.
So if, as an Acupuncturist, I side with some of the broader critiques of Western Medicine, why am I still not comfortable with the term ‘Alternative Medicine’? Simple: because in my experience the label arises out of a mindset that is fundamentally antagonistic. This doesn’t always benefit the patient, and it is the patient that matters!
‘Alternative Medicine’ tends to arise out of a desire to oppose the ‘system’, the system in this case being the entire framework of Western Medicine and most especially, Big Pharma. Even though there are genuine concerns (and genuine people) behind these attitudes, I’m always dismayed when some within the Alternative community produce a strident knee-jerk response to the actions of institutions or individuals they basically view as ‘the enemy’. Their argument tends to go like this: Big Pharma rules the planet, aided and abetted by corrupt politicians and self-serving scientists. Doctors are either brainwashed by their medical training (and therefore unconsciously harming people all day, every day) or for selfish reasons are actively promoting products that damage the public wellbeing. Finally, all drugs, especially vaccines, are bad, bad, bad. The antidote to this medical dystopia, apparently, is to deliver ‘Alternative Medicine’ which is totally natural, safe and in every case vastly more effective than Western Medicine. It’s called Alternative because it aims to replace drugs or surgery entirely. Yikes! I’m not exaggerating here; I have actually witnessed a colleague many years ago tell someone with an advanced lung infection not to take their prescribed antibiotics, because that would be ‘dangerous’ for them. The patient went on to develop acute double-pneumonia and nearly died – to me, a triumph of ideology over common sense and basically, bad practice.
‘Complementary Medicine’ on the other hand, is far less ideologically driven and has, I might argue, a more realistic approach to human health. The way I see it, my Acupuncture treatments are designed to work with, and around, whatever Western Medical treatments a patient is undergoing. Yes, drugs can sometimes produce nasty side-effects and it would be truly wonderful if no one ever had to take them, but that’s not going to happen. Some people are only on their feet, or alive at all, because of their drugs. Yes, it is often true that after a course of treatment some patients can be sufficiently well enough to go back to their doctor and negotiate, less, or different drugs, but that is still very much a case of working with the doctor, not instead of them. Very often people come to me specifically to help counter the side-effects of their medication, and this can be very effective. Nobody ever suggests they should stop taking the drugs! Or take the case of someone who has just had a massive heart attack or been run over by a truck. Do they call their Acupuncturist? A Herbalist? A Reflexologist? No! Of course they don’t: they call an ambulance and then come and see a Complementary practitioner for some assistance with their rehabilitation – after they’re out of hospital and in a stable condition. In this way Acupuncture, and many other therapies, can ‘complement’ standard medical care and also be flexible enough to provide that ‘bigger picture’ that sees the whole person and not just their symptoms. I call that teamwork, and if we are really going to deliver the best possible healthcare in this country, then there really is no ‘alternative’ to teamwork.