For about 80% of the world’s population, the first stop after a cold or a broken bone is not the hospital – perhaps because there is none nearby or because they cannot afford it.
Instead, the first step is to consult traditional medicine, which cultures around the world have used for thousands of years.
Traditional medicine encompasses the healing knowledge, skills and practices used by a variety of cultures and groups.
Examples of traditional medicine include herbal medicine; Acupuncture; Tui Na – a type of massage originating from China; Ayurveda – an ancient Indian system of promoting health through diet, exercise and lifestyle; and Unani – another ancient health system from South Asia that balances important aspects of mind, body and spirit.
Recognizing that traditional medicine and other alternative healing methods are important sources of healthcare for many people around the world, the World Health Organization and the Government of India jointly hosted their first-ever Traditional Medicine Summit.
The WHO’s first global summit on traditional medicine took place in August 2023.
The summit brought together health policymakers, traditional medicine workers and practitioners, international organizations, scientists and private sector stakeholders from 88 WHO Member States.
The aim of the summit was to exchange best practices as well as scientific findings and data related to traditional medicine.
As researchers interested in providing the best possible medical care to patients both in the United States and around the world, we were interested in the results of the summit.
Understanding traditional medicine can help health professionals develop sustainable, personalized, and culturally respectful practices.
Critical to healthcare for many
In many countries, traditional medicine costs less and is more accessible than conventional health care.
And many conventional medicines come from the same source as compounds used in traditional medicine – up to 50% of medicines have a natural root, such as aspirin.
Many factors can influence whether someone chooses traditional medicine, such as age and gender, religion, education and income level, and the distance that must be traveled for treatment.
Cultural factors can also influence people’s use of traditional medicine.
In China, for example, fewer and fewer people have chosen traditional medicine as more and more people have embraced Western culture.
In contrast, many African migrants to Australia continue to use traditional medicine to express their cultural identity and maintain a cohesive ethnic community.
A patient’s preference for traditional medicine often has significant personal, environmental, and cultural relevance.
A framework for traditional medicine
For years, countries have urged the WHO to study and track data on traditional medicine.
In the past, WHO has developed a “Traditional Medicine Strategy” to help Member States research, integrate and regulate traditional medicine into their national health systems.
The WHO has also created international terminology standards for the practice of various forms of traditional medicine.
The practice of traditional medicine varies greatly from country to country, depending on how accessible it is and how culturally important it is in each country.
To make traditional medicine safer and more accessible on a broader scale, it is important for policymakers and public health experts to develop standards and share best practices. The WHO summit was a step towards this goal.
WHO also wants to collect data that could serve as the basis for these standards and best practices. In 2023, it will conduct the Global Survey on Traditional Medicine.
As of August, around 55 of the 194 Member States have completed and submitted their data.
Acupuncture – a case study of safety and effectiveness
Some traditional medicine methods, such as acupuncture, have shown consistent and credible benefits and have even begun to be incorporated into mainstream medicine in the United States
However, leaders at the summit stressed the need for further research into the effectiveness and safety of traditional medicine.
Although traditional medicine can have a number of benefits, some treatments pose health risks.
For example, acupuncture is a traditional healing method that involves inserting needles into specific areas of the body to relieve pain.
But acupuncture can cause infection and injury if the practitioner does not use sterile needles or the needles are inserted incorrectly.
Nevertheless, acupuncture is the most commonly used practice of traditional medicine across countries, with 113 WHO member states recognizing that their citizens practiced acupuncture in 2019.
Interestingly, acupuncture has successfully treated many US military personnel on the battlefield, for example for pain relief. It is easy to use, transportable and does not pose any risk of addiction.
There is also some evidence for the use of traditional medicine, including acupuncture, meditation and yoga, to treat post-traumatic stress disorder.
However, acupuncture practitioners are not trained uniformly in all countries.
To provide guidance on best practice, WHO developed standardized benchmarks for the practice of acupuncture in 2021. The WHO wants to develop similar standards for other forms of traditional medicine.
Interest in traditional medicine is growing among those who have primarily used conventional medicine in the past. More research and concerted efforts to develop safety standards can make traditional medicine accessible to all who seek it.
Written by Ling Zhao, Paul D. Terry. The conversation.
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