Mainstream, traditional, conventional and orthodox – all words which, when applied to medicine, suggest a must-have of hospitals, pills, uniformed nurses and doctors with stethoscopes.
But it’s not that simple.
It is becoming increasingly mainstream to want access to a wider variety of health care options than the NHS normally provides.
Each year UK families are spending their own money – in fact hundreds of millions of pounds – on complementary and alternative therapies (CAM), which are either being used alongside traditional medical treatments or instead of them.
A 2007 survey found 40% of people in England and Wales have used CAM, a “marked increase” in recent years.
Still more intriguing is research published this year showing a significant number of doctors and nurses placing their confidence in CAM therapies.
Indeed, the survey, conducted in London and published in The Journal of Clinical Audits, reports the use of CAM within the NHS is “growing”.
It says: “A large number of clinicians had experienced a form of CAM therapy themselves, of which 90% stated it was effective in treating the condition for which they acquired the therapy.”
In addition, some 51% of those questioned expressed a desire to be trained in such treatments while 69% believed undergraduate medical and nursing students should be taught more about them.
This would seem to represent a vote of confidence from some surprising quarters in a health care choice that goes beyond the use of conventional medicine.
I know the feeling!
In my early twenties I unexpectedly found myself making a choice for an alternative approach to health care – one that has now been working for me for three decades.
At the time I was struggling with a number of personal and social issues and had not found a way to resolve them. Over the previous decade, though, I had glimpsed on several occasions that a more spiritual way of thinking could be a key part of my answer.
Finally I found a more consistent approach to spirituality, one able to ease my fears and subdue my self-centredness. Along with that came a noticeable improvement in my physical well-being.
While the impact this also had on my health came as a pleasant surprise, there are researchers today who might not regard it as that unusual to find thought has an effect on well-being.
Some are investigating the impact belief has on the effectiveness of various medical treatments. A paper earlier this year related how an individual’s expectation of a drug’s effectiveness “critically influences its therapeutic efficacy”.
The conclusion was that physicians should consider paying specific attention to patients’ beliefs “alongside traditional considerations in order to optimize treatment outcomes”.
Few would argue health is a key ingredient to a happy life and can involve some of the most profound choices we make. When we are sick it’s natural to seek the best outcome any way we can.
As many, including some at the heart of the medical profession, increasingly look beyond a drug-based health system for their relief, perhaps we are seeing the beginnings of an evolution that will result in health care increasingly suited to individual needs.
In case you think this is just a UK phenomenon, see the stats for USA health care workers using alternative medicines. Here is an interesting article on this phenomena in the Chicago Tribune’s Health section, called More doctors going the alternative route – Even in their own lives, physicians look beyond Western medicine.