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Differences Between Western and Alternative Medicine


For several decades, the world has witnessed concerted efforts geared towards developing a healthcare system that is based on strict adherence to formal scientific procedures (Hatem, 2006). These efforts have culminated in a healthcare system that is commonly referred to as western Medicine. Thus western medicine can be said to be the “treatment of medical conditions with medications, by doctors, nurses and other conventional healthcare providers who employ methods developed according to Western medical and scientific traditions” (Hatem, 2006). Western medicine has developed to become the predominant approach to healthcare across the world.

Other forms of healing have been pushed to the periphery due to widespread perception driven by western medicine which makes them appear inferior or inappropriate for the treatment of diseases (Anderson, 1997). More recent studies have shown that indeed the mind plays a big role in determining the health status of an individual. Unfortunately, western medicine does not offer treatment that takes into account the role of the mind in healing (Baars, 1988). Many scholars have advocated for a holistic approach to health care; a healthcare system that takes into account the “emotional, physical, mental, spiritual, environmental and social factors” (Bowart, 1978).

However, this has faced real challenges which mainly affect the creation of awareness and understanding of natural healing tenets to the practitioner, patient, and the larger community of scholars (Blakemore, 1977). This paper seeks to determine the current interpretation of health intelligence based on decades of practice and look for ways through which perceptions towards western and alternative medicine can be changed to allow for an integrative approach to healthcare that takes into account the emotional, physical, mental, spiritual, environmental and social factors of an individual (Robinson, 2009)

Western medicine and the misconception

As defined earlier in this paper, western medicine prefers “the treatment of health conditions with medications, by doctors, nurses, and other conventional health care providers” (Bowden, 2008, p. 33). The techniques utilized in western medicine have been developed through scientific traditions. This treatment approach mainly depends on the “industrially produced medications and strict adherence to formal scientific process” (Ericson, 2004, p. 14).

Safety has always been a priority throughout the history of western medicine. Western medicine includes all forms of conventional treatment methods such as chemotherapy, surgery, radiation, and physical therapy (Frenkel & Arye, 2001). There are strict review procedures that a drug or technique must go through before it is approved for general patient use (Ericson, 2004). The ideology of western medicine depicts it as a closed system that is complete in itself and therefore not available for integration with other forms of medicine. To carefully comprehend the ideology of contemporary/western medicine, one needs to examine the language that has been developed for it (Gustavo, 2005).

The language is often used by practitioners and medical researchers in their day to activities. “The choice of words reveals the belief systems and the models used to understand the idea of healing as fronted by western Medicine” (Healing the healer: developing your health plan, 2007). In addition, western medicine’s influence on the masses has partly been due to the widespread use of over-the-counter drugs.

Pharmaceutical companies across the world conduct widespread advertising activities to inform people on how their drugs are sufficient in alleviating human suffering through curing off diseases. In a real sense, pharmaceutical companies are much more interested in doing business than caring for the health of individuals. The unprecedented influence created by the over-the-counter (OTC) drugs leaves many people with no other choices to make regarding their health (Ericson, 2004).

It has been argued that all the good said about western medicine is in most cases not true. For instance, the message that is always carried by Pharmaceutical companies which claim that their drugs will cure people off diseases such as “osteoporosis, allergies, cancers, depression, and cholesterol among others” (Ericson, 2004). Many scholars have regarded this information as inaccurate as prescription and OTC drugs only worsen an individual’s health.

Researchers in western medicine regard the contraindications as side effects or errors but this is not often available for the patient to know. Thus Western medicine can be seen as a quick fix for a few health problems. In some instances, the quick fix turns out to be a quick send-off for the patient. Statistics indicate that an “estimated 250,000 people die every year due to misdiagnosis and or as a result of poor treatment” (Wyatt & White, 2005). Such deaths do not occur due to illness, they do because of poor treatment offered by western medicine. Thus many western medicine doctrines fail to take into account that the disease is a part of the patient.

From an alternative medicine’s point of view, the disease is depicted as an accurate expression of the patient’s lifestyle, beliefs, and energies. However, in some instances such as epidemics, the patient may get infected without conducting himself/herself inappropriately. This implies that Western medicine is still vital for the maintenance of health, only that the practitioners should be in a position to blend it with the alternative option.

People are reluctant to accept the influence of their minds on their health; this section will try to give a few common reasons as to why an ordinary person will resist attempts to be drawn into this kind of thinking. First, the doctors who provide conventional medicine never tell the patients how the mind influences their health. This may be because: Science does not understand and therefore does not advocate it; the doctor was never taught about the mind and body approach while in medical school. (Bowden, 2008) Other reasons about the individual may be; the patient is not ready to accept that the problem may be in his/her mind and that the patient is relying on the physician to tell what he/she needs to do to stay healthy- “eat right, get regular checkups and exercise.” (Baars, 1988, p. 65)

So this leads to a kind of catch 22 scenario, where the patient doesn’t insist on the mind and body information because the authorities don’t tell him/her that the information is important and the health authorities don’t regard the information as important because the public is not interested. (Ericson, 2004) As a result, no efforts are made towards informing the public about the influence of their minds on their health. The health authorities who base their practice on scientific evidence are not in a position to offer proper dissemination of information about mind and body connections, even though they are very much aware of it.

The mind and body approach is a new concept that does not require objective measurements that are synonymous with science. It is about beliefs. So, even though “scientific research shows that mental factors such as optimistic outlook, a sense of purpose, and self-acceptance are health-promoting,” (Ericson, 2004, p. 32) it can’t say how much of this one needs to indulge in. so it’s the inability to measure or lack of objectivity that locks this important aspect of health from being used.

Another reason why people don’t request information regarding “the mind and body approach to health” is because most of them think that they know enough about it. (Blakemore, 1977, p. 45) The simplification that is always carried out in the media- “think positive, avoid stress, and have a good attitude” leads to most people thinking that they use it every day and yet they are not using it as it is supposed to be. (Blakemore, 1977) The belief that one knows factor has a great influence on teaching and learning outcomes about the alternative approach to health. And in most cases, individuals with this notion will tend to tune out when important health information is being given to them.

Factors that hinder the integration of alternative and western medicine

There are several reasons why western medicine does not work well with the alternative approach. “Some scholars believe that the basic philosophic approach to disease is different in the two” (Kligler, Gordon, & Stuart, 2000) Western medicine is seen as a crisis intervention medicine with its strength lying in its trauma care and therapies for acute problems” (Helms, 2006, p. 119). In contrast the alternative approach and some other forms of traditional healing “there is always long-standing viewpoint of wellness as stability, using the things around the individual such as the mind, the body and the spirit” (John & Helen, 1999, p. 12).

The traditional/alternative medical practitioner utilizes the three factors in a particular fashion to create a model health system (Schofield, 1999). The aim of such interventions is usually to “restore the individual to a harmonious relationship with social order” (Well, 1990, p. 23) Thus alternative medicine takes into account all the factors needed that may be contributing to ill health and restores them to order. Thus the alternative approach is a much broader form of treatment as it recognizes that other factors in the environment may be contributing to ill health. (Wyatt & White, 2005) On the other hand, “the western concept strictly restricts the locality of the disease to the body of the individual.

Thus regarding the western approach a different approach is undertaken in treating the patient as well as the particular ailment is undertaken” (Well, 1990, p. 114). The treatment plan is often aimed at the individuals and more specifically on a thorough scientific understanding of ailment. Thus “the physical condition of the patient is taken as the primary focus, with little or no consideration of the social and spiritual state of the patient” (Prieskel, 2003, p. 45). Due to these differences in approach to treatment, the two groups find it difficult to accept the technique offered by the other (Konefal, 2002). In some societies, a traditional model that is comparable to the alternative approach has been around for so long. In places such as Africa, there are traditional healing techniques that have been passed from generation to generation.

They are “usually based on complex social, cultural and religious beliefs” (Helms, 2006, p. 11) Western medicine presents itself with a certain kind of authority that ensures that other beliefs and perceptions about medicine are seen as wrong. This acts to reduce the influence of the natural healing systems. Although western medicine can be said to come with good intentions that aim at alleviating people’s suffering, the contraindications and other contradictions make it hard to function together with the alternative and other non-invasive forms of healing. Proponents of both western and alternative medicine present claims to support their side regarding treatment and healing.

However, there are three fundamental issues on which the two sides conflict. “These two sides value knowledge concerning nature, but the methods of obtaining the knowledge conflict. In western thinking, nature is seen as empirically knowable whereas in the alternative/traditional thinking it is viewed as a mystery” (Bowden, 2008, p. 43). Western science has long been established as an orderly method that makes use of empiricism as the basis for gaining knowledge (Hatem, 2006).

Thus it is believed that it is only through observation that knowledge about the physical world can be gained. “The fundamental idea behind empiricism is that knowledge can be derived through careful observation, classification of phenomena, and formulating laws and principles from these observations” (Well, 1990, p. 12) Locke observed that human knowledge is based on nothing but the experience. According to him, when a person is born the mind is usually empty, however as one grows, the mind is furnished with knowledge through the senses (Healing the healer: developing your health plan, 2007). The idea of empiricism has led to the growth of western medicine.

The growth can be traced to the times of individuals such as Hippocrates, who demonstrated that health knowledge could be gained through “observation and simple deduction and Galen who dissected human cadavers” (Konefal, 2002, p. 5). Western medicine has borrowed so much from these early empirical methodologies to gain a clearer understanding of the anatomy and physiology of the human body (Well, 1990).

“Therefore through careful examination and systematic ways of cataloging facts and the testing of phenomena, human beings have been able to understand a great deal what goes around in their bodies and around them” (Anderson, 1997, p. 45).

Rationalism offers the other method through which knowledge is gained through western thinking. The proponents of rationalism believed that the human mind was endowed with immense logical power (Hatem, 2006). According to them, “humans understood certain things because they were so obvious mathematically and logically and also by how they followed the laws of nature” (Hatem, 2006, p. 34). The rationalists allege that natural occurrences always followed certain rules which it never strays from. “Thomas Paine was a believer in the capacity of the human knowledge and a strong advocate of the use of reason.” Paine advocated for the use of reason in the search for truth (Bowart, 1978).

He strongly asserted that reason is the only reliable source of knowledge. The development of western medicine was and is still based on this thinking and thus it is often difficult for proponents of western medicine to include concepts that cannot be verified through logical thinking. All the aspects of western medicine can be tested and the results cataloged, the researchers and doctors explore the unknown to try and find out the cause and effect relationship between phenomena” (Healing the healer: developing your health plan, 2007).

In contrast to the western perception of nature, alternative medicine does not advocate the viewing of nature in a systematic way or by any form of investigation. Alternative medicine is based on the belief that what happens in one’s mind determines his/her health. It does not provide the means through which evaluation can be carried out and therefore does not rely on the western notion of backing reality with the reason (Well, 1990).

Another argument can be based on the aspect of change and progress. Western medicine relies heavily on the progress and change that is typically necessitated by technology (John & Helen, 1999). This is because new and better drugs are always being developed to cure diseases. New technologies are being developed to tackle different kinds of diseases, for instance, through rapid technological development it is now possible to determine an individual’s genetic code.

How the integration of Alternative medicine and Western medicine can be achieved

Efforts have been made to harmonize alternative and modern medicine without beneficial results. To create a smooth merger between the two, their different medical paradigms need to be evaluated to iron out the inhibiting differences. It should be noted that patient care is should be the core value of any treatment and thus the two approaches should not be seen as a competition between the respective practitioners. Societies are now falling victim to an increasing number of chronic illnesses, thus a paradigm shift in the provision of health services is inevitable. The “western medicine skeptics should stop accusing the alternative healers as Quakers or fraudsters” (John & Helen, 1999, p. 12).

On the other hand, the alternative healers should refrain from accusing western doctors of being profit-driven and cold (John & Helen, 1999). The failure of western medicine in providing a solution to several medical conditions is evident to every practitioner. Studies conducted on the mind-body approach are confirming the belief that the health of an individual relies much more on personal thoughts and beliefs than physical factors.

Proponents of the alternative approach have argued that western medicine only aims at alleviating the physical aspects of diseases and ignores the underlying mental factors that predispose one to the condition. The intrinsic value alternative medicine can provide to society is clear to us and should not be ignored at this point. Political, economic, and social factors should be utilized in the process of integration of the two healing traditions through research and education (Wyatt & White, 2005). The best way to oversee the integration is to lay down a framework through which both professionals of alternative medicine and western medicine can work together in the best interest of the patient.

On the clinical level, blending involves the integration of the concepts and techniques of the two systems (Prieskel, 2003). The mechanistic, analytical, quantitative approaches used by western medicine should be blended with the holistic, individualistic alternative approaches (John & Helen, 1999). The framework should be applied through the process of diagnosis, prevention, treatment, and rehabilitation. Appropriate techniques should be utilized to allow the strengths of alternative medicine to compensate for the weaknesses of modern western medicine (Wyatt & White, 2005). Blending may not be achieved easily due to the differential philosophic approaches to healing utilized by the two healing systems.

The alternative approach seeks to reconcile an individual with all the mental and physical factors that guarantee wellness. On the other hand, the western approach is often seen as a crisis intervention medicine that investigates a specific physical cause of ill health and roots it out (John & Helen, 1999). With this in mind, it is difficult to craft a model in which the two systems can effectively corporate in a clinical setup.

Education can provide the most effective route to integration between western and alternative medicine. “For many years, academic leaders and different health professionals have called for increased education in complementary and alternative medicine” (Robinson, 2009, p. 120.) If this is achieved then health profession students will be effectively provided with sufficient knowledge regarding the different treatment approaches that can be used. Successful integration of alternative medicine into the current health curriculum will need both qualified personnel and process components (Anderson, 1997). The medical institutions will be required to establish how the programs can be established, maintained.

This can be achieved through the selection of individuals who can provide the best approaches in running the programs through recruiting and training the faculty (Healing the healer: developing your health plan, 2007). The alternative medicine education programs should utilize a top-down approach that will establish alternative medicine initiatives. The corporation should be sought from peer institutions that have been at the forefront in advocating for the use and inclusion of alternative medicine in the mainstream healthcare system. Thus the initiatives should seek to create a sort of collaborative environment through which practice-based alternative medicine content integration can be achieved (Konefal, 2002).

The strong reasons to show why it is vital for the integration to be done should always be given to the students. These reasons can be in form of a “professional obligation to guide patients to reliable information and good complete care of patients”. The desired learning competencies for the alternative medicine curriculum such as mind-body healing should be used as the main rationale to advance the learner’s self-awareness (Anderson, 1997).

The initial strategy should target doctoral level students probably with some knowledge in alternative medicine. Such scholars with “established credentials can help increase acceptance and inclusion of the complementary alternative medicine within the medical or nursing curriculum” (Helms, 2006). Implementation of the integration programs can be “greatly facilitated if the alternative medicine program directors are allowed to serve as course directors, the committee of department chairs or are allowed to hold decanal responsibilities” (Gustavo, 2005, p. 43). A blend of informal iterative techniques should be used to get the full participation of the key players in the integration programs. Multiple technique approaches are better placed to drive alternative medicine integration into the western medical training curriculum (John & Helen, 1999).

Courses that are seen as to have a natural fit for alternative medicine integration should be initially targeted by the program coordinators. These courses may include society-type “courses, science courses such as pharmacology” among others (Schofield, 1999). Initially, the programs should include approaches that are evidence-based dispel pessimistic concerns about the alternative approach to healing. Though the programs should be aimed at achieving integration between the two healing practices, stand alone courses can be offered to forestall hurdles created by the ideological differences.

The stand alone courses are vital for building interests in the students before they can be incorporated subsequently into the required causes (Bowden, 2008). Students in the medical institutions should be encouraged to form alternative health promotion initiatives through various specific activities such as journal clubs and student interest groups (Wyatt & White, 2005). The medical schools should be encouraged to built alternative medicine centers or provide such programs within their institutions (Hatem, 2006). Good working relationships should also be established with upright alternative medicine practitioners in the communities where the institutions are located.

The establishment of a faculty should be seen as the most important factor in effecting a shift in medical learning and thus enhancing the sustainability of the programs (Emmer, 2004)

“Faculty development activities should focus on increasing awareness, interest, and knowledge, specifically through alternative medicine grand rounds, noontime seminars, journal clubs, and continuing education conferences” (Schofield, 1999). Most importantly, the programs should be able to achieve an overall shift in the learning attitudes to allow a smooth integration that has the blessing of all the stake holders.

According to Kligler et al. curriculum content for the comprehensive teaching in the integrative medicine should revolve around the following six major themes: the sociopolitical, historical, and cultural contexts of CAM/integrative medicine; the research and clinical evidence pertaining to major modalities within the alternative medicine classification system; the key methodological issues faced by researchers regarding the efficacy and safety of alternative medicine; the identification of self-care wellness strategies (e.g., meditation, imagery, progressive muscle relaxation); the recognition of the value of patient-centred care; and the exploration of roles, training, and credentialing among alternative medicine providers (2000).

After implementing the integration education programs continuous evaluation should be performed to gauge the achievements (Anderson, 1997). Questionnaires can be used to evaluate have the content is being received by the students and other stake holders. If there is need then facilitators should be brought in or a modification done on the context within which the content is presented to the medical students (John & Helen, 1999) The benefits of such program will be seen through an overall integration of the alternative medicine into the current health system thus resulting in a paradigm shift at all fronts.


As shown the literature reviewed in this paper, many obstacles make it difficult for western medicine to work together with other forms of medicine such as alternative medicine. The differential approaches can however be reconciled for the benefit of humanity. For instance, it has been shown that through proper planning and implementation of an integrative medical education program a paradigm shift can be achieved, and hence a blended healthcare system that takes consideration of all inherent factors of wellness. It is therefore time western medicine and the natural approach providers developed a progressive integrative approach that will be responsive to the current health needs of the society.

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