To facilitate an open discussion with tomorrow's future leaders we asked our scholarship participants the question “What is your view on the role of natural medicine in a modern healthcare system?” All applicants to the scholarship submitted a 1000 word article addressing this question. The standard of the entries was very high and the messages conveyed important and worthy. Please read our outstanding winning entry below by Catherine Lockley who is currently enrolled in a Bachelor of Health Science [Food & Nutrition] at Charles Sturt University. Congratulations Catherine!
Natural medicine is a huge and fast growing health care market driven by the consumer .Our understanding of concepts like health and wellness are moving beyond individualism into an exploration of personal, interpersonal, environmental and psychological/spiritual interconnectedness . Consumers are increasingly turning to natural medicines to complement or replace traditional science as their own beliefs change  and dissatisfaction with medicine’s philosophy of healing and therapeutic relationships grows . The growing popularity of natural/traditional medicines may also reflect a general cultural paradigm shift towards ‘ethical consumption’ . Being ‘natural’ is an aspect that is important to consumers , in that the use of natural remedies and natural therapies is to benefit the body and support the body's ability to heal itself . Kaptchuk and Eisenberg (1998) argue that a consumers' use of ‘natural’ treatments or adhering to ‘nature's’ healing philosophy is an opportunity to heal both themselves and the world. Until fairly recently in human history, all medicine was natural medicine. It wasn’t until the 1800’s that advances in the ‘hard sciences’ (Chemistry, physics, physiology) led medicine down the science-based/evidence-based trajectory of reductionism that it still follows today.
Previous to this, humans relied almost exclusively on natural medicine/folk remedies. Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) and Indian Ayurvedic systems pre-date the modern concept of medicine by more than 5000 years. Curiously, unlike Western society, these cultures never abandoned one in favour of the other, recognising the unique benefits of each. In our increasingly electronically ‘connected’ world, there is a simultaneous feeling of ‘disconnection’ in many. Information availability is overwhelming, and sifting fact from fiction is made even more confounding by clever marketing and emotional appeal. The massive shift in consumer demand for organic foods and a desire to ‘re-connect’ with the planet is evidence that rather than being reduced to a set of ‘parts’, people want to be ‘whole’. Holistic therapies and natural medicine naturally appeal to this embedded human desire. The synergistic relationship of all systems on earth speaks to us. We know that nothing exists in a vacuum, and when we want to reconnect, a walk in a forest is likely to be more comforting and therapeutic than a stroll through one’s local laboratory.
Beyond the carefree days of childhood, most of us become acutely aware of our mortality, and our relative ‘fragility’. Disease and disorder seem to strike with perplexing randomness, and a large percentage of patients feel pretty helpless when it comes to their own health and treatment. Most of us are not Doctors - we do not have the ability to understand the complex mechanisms of physiology, biochemistry, surgery, pharmaceutical kinetics and the complex relationships existing at the macro and micro levels of our own bodies. We are forced to trust our healthcare providers. The very positioning of ‘expert’ vs ‘layperson’ creates a divide, a circumstance in which most patients perceive limited choice and a definitive powerlessness. Presented with pills and powders in aseptic and clinical packaging, many struggle to pronounce the chemical compounds they are asked to ingest and read with some dread the exhaustive lists of possible side-effects. Such a level of vulnerability is frightening. It is little wonder then that natural therapies with their focus on collaborative care and patient empowerment are so appealing.
Indeed, a recurrent theme in patient testimony regarding natural medicines is that the distant institutionalised “they” becomes “we”, “curing” is not divorced from “healing”. The practitioner not only has the crucial knowledge, but is willing to share and impart that with clients, encouraging self direction and co-learning . The importance of this approach is beautifully elucidated by Anatole Broyard, who chronicled his journey with cancer in his book Intoxicated by my Illness.
I wouldn’t demand a lot of my doctor’s time: I just wish he would brood on my situation for perhaps five minutes, that he would give me his whole mind just once, be bonded with me for a brief space, survey my soul as well as my flesh, to get at my illness, for each man is ill in his own way… Just as he orders blood tests and bone scans of my body, I’d like my doctor to scan me, to grope for my spirit as well as my prostate. Without some such recognition, I am nothing but my illness.
The difference in approach and engagement with the patient is one that demands attention and offers enormous opportunity for collaboration and ‘research’; quite literally we must all learn to look again and to look differently. In conventional medicine, the patient is reduced to organ systems, cellular dysfunction, molecular defect and the resulting treatment devised by laboratory technicians.
Minute and carefully defined proportions of molecules are designed to hone in on and target the specific dysfunction, often neglecting the dynamic interaction of all elements and how they effect the system, and the person as a whole. Reducing a person to a scientific problem and dismissing the psychological, spiritual and emotional aspects of illness compartmentalises and devalues the patient, and may make treatment less effective:
‘The significance of the intimate personal relationship between physician and patient cannot be too strongly emphasised, for in an extraordinarily large number of cases both diagnosis and treatment are directly dependent on it, and the failure of the young physician to establish this relationship accounts for much of his ineffectiveness in the care of patients’ .
The importance of Peabody’s message about whole-person care in scientific medicine is still recognised as essential today  as is the earlier more condensed philosophical observation by William Osler  ‘it is much more important to know what sort of patient has the disease than to know what sort of disease the patient has’ .People who have strong personal care relationships with clients consistently show better outcomes regarding the creation of, and adherence to, lifestyle changes that not only create health but reverse disease . The objective and removed knowledge of scientific medicine is necessary, but insufficient for creating health in patients.
Natural medicine, in many of its forms has been termed ‘complementary’, and this goes some way to defining its role in the modern day healthcare system. But it starts to become a chicken or the egg argument very quickly. Is conventional medicine really the gold-standard of health-attainment, or a system crying out for adjustment? The two approaches need not ‘collide’. The result needn’t be combative. Evidence-based medicine and the holism of natural medicines will both be more effective in patient care when each learns from the other in equal measure.