Thursday, June 17, 2010

On integrative medicine and Western medicine

Having spent a good long time in university (13 years, my gosh, that's a long time!), and being firmly entrenched in an evidence-based framework, I'm finding this foray into integrative medicine intellectually challenging. Even though I went into Health Psychology and focused my research on chronic stress and health when it was clear that the root causes of health and illness were not simply viruses, bacteria, and genes, there is an important intellectual jump to make. (In a very small voice I will admit there is also something attractive about IM, especially when one continues to feel ill even with the best of Western medical care. I think it arises from hopefulness that something has to work, and trying to gain a sense of control).

Often modern Western medicine is at a loss when it comes to many chronic diseases. At the same time, there is a lack of evidence about much of what integrative medicine (IM) has to offer. I'm having a running argument in my head about some of the proposed causes and treatments for chronic illness that are offered by IM, for example the food sensitivity testing I am going to subject myself to today.

At the same time, when I examine carefully what Western medicine offers, much of it is also lacking a clear evidence base and is based on assumptions from its own theory of what makes people sick or healthy. I also have to remind myself that sometimes we don't know why Western treatments work.

Take plaquenil for rheumatoid arthritis, a medication I was on that effectively treated my arthritis for years. Plaquenil is an anti-malarial, and they found that it also helped RA symptoms of people who took it as a treatment for malaria. I'm sure at some point the causal mechanism of why it works will be uncovered, but in the meantime Western medicine continues to use it in the absence of this understanding. It works, it has few side effects, and thus is an effective tool.

I note that I should have visited Africa before I switched medications!

The question is, should we then accept IM treatments as well, even if we don't understand the underlying mechanisms? I would argue that yes we should, but that it is important to conduct good research to bear out the effects promised by the treatments, as well as to ensure that they don't cause harm. Merging the best of IM with the best of Western medicine seems like a sensible approach where everyone will win.

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