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Medical compromise

How we use Eastern and Western medicine in our lives.

By Stef dela Cruz, M.D.


You have a headache. Your mom tells you to take a painkiller, but your dad tells you acupuncture might be a safer option. You trust both of your parents—and saying you’re torn is an understatement.

Story of your life? You are not alone. Many Filipinos wonder, which is the emerging winner—the East or the West?Fortunately, when it comes to health, it doesn’t have to be a contest.

Best of both worlds?

Integrative medicine, as its name implies, is the middle ground combiningEastern and Western practices. The conventional approaches of Western medicine cross paths with the alternatives common in the East.Ideally, integrative medicine is evidence-based. This means that a doctor practicing integrative medicine will recommend treatment based on his clinical expertise and on the best evidence available in current medical literature.

The danger lies in treatments that aren’t proven to work, regardless of whether they are Western or Eastern in origin. “When the regulatory environment is weak, non-evidence-based treatment thrives,” warns Anthony Leachon, M.D., vice-president of the Philippine College of Physicians.

In striving for balance between conventional and complementary medicine, the emphasis on evidence cannot be overemphasized. “The most expensive drug is the drug that doesn’t work,” says Dr. Leachon. “There is nothing wrong with offering treatment options from Eastern medicineas long as the treatment options are proven to be both effective and safe.” Regardless of whether a treatment hails from the East or West, research helps establish its safety and therapeutic profile.

“Chinese herbology is very concerned with side effects and interactions,” describes Philip Niňo Tan-Gatue, M.D., C.Ac., section head of Acupuncture Services at The Medical City. Because herbs and supplements can have side effects, licensed Western and Eastern medicine practitioners should be concerned with exact dosages of drugs and herbs.

Weighing risks versus benefits

About eight out of every 10 people rely on alternative remedies, according to a 2002 paper on traditional medicine strategy published by the World Health Organization (WHO). Just like Western medicine, complementary medicine comes with benefits and disadvantages.

The following are some of the well-known benefits of Eastern and traditional medicine:

Adverse effects may be kept to a minimum using alternative remedies.“Most [people] are looking for anything that can either substitute for pills or help reduce dosage,” Dr. Tan-Gatue shares.

For instance, acupuncture is a great alternative to chronic analgesic use. In a consensus statement by the National Institutes of Health in 1997, the side effects of acupuncture for pain syndromes are considerably lower compared to those from pharmacologic remedies.

Many Eastern and traditional therapies are backed by evidence. For instance, acupuncture has been proven to work for pain relief, according to a 1996 study by Andrew Vickers published in the Journal of the Royal Society of Medicine.

The extract of the saw palmetto fruit has also been proven to work in alleviating the manifestations of benign prostate hyperplasia, reported a 2009 study by Timothy Wilt and colleagues published in The Cochrane Library.

Complementary medicine plays an important role where Western medicine practitioners are few and far between. In areas where pharmaceutical drugs are inaccessible, the use of local herbs proven to be safe and effective against specific conditions can help save lives.

Alternative treatments are sought out by people with chronic ailments where Western medicine cannot provide a definitive cure. According to the WHO, there are alternative options that may help cancer patients and people with AIDS. This is why the United Nations Programme on HIV/AIDS has partnered with traditional medicine practitioners in Africa.

Conversely, traditional medicine also comes with risks:

Many alternative treatments are unregulated. Without regulatory bodies, some products are not manufactured with uniform dosages. Others yet are contaminated, becoming potential sources of infection.

Many practitioners who advocate alternative treatments are not qualified to do so. Unqualified practitioners, or “quacks”, don’t know the recommended dosage for different herbs or the recommended guidelines.

For instance, acupuncture on the trunk, if not done correctly, may result in lung collapse and even death.Even the seemingly-harmless gingko biloba, supposed to help circulation, may lead to excessive bleeding during surgery, reported a 2001 study by Michael Ang-Lee and colleagues published in The Journal of the American Medical Association.

The unsupervised use of alternative remedies with conventional drugs may lead to drug interactions. People who self-medicate with Eastern remedies while taking their regular meds run the risk of potentially-fatal drug interactions.

So what is the verdict on Eastern versus Western medicine? Find out in the November issue of
HealthToday. You’ll also get a handy guide to integrative medicine, as well as other articles on the subject.

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