Navigating the Differences Between Modern Medicine, Traditional Medicine, and Alternative Medicine


Since ancient times, humanity has been seeking newer and more innovative ways to prevent, control, and cure the ailments that plague us. Different parts of the world have some medical traditions and practices that have been carried forward from as far back as thousands of years. These days, with the formalization of the medical field, there’s more information available and a growing body of knowledge and research. Between modern, traditional, and alternative medicine, it seems as if there are a lot of differences that may be difficult to navigate around. There are arguments for and against each of these. The ideal position might lie somewhere in the middle where the benefits of each are appreciated.

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Statistics from Around the World

Many of the world’s populations still rely heavily on traditional medicine. 2011 figures from the World Health Organization (WHO) estimated that between 70-95 percent of the populations of Africa, Asia, Latin America, and the Middle East used traditional solutions for their primary healthcare. The demand for traditional and herbal solutions is growing with an estimated market size of US$115 billion by 2020 for herbal supplements and remedies. There may be a couple of reasons for this trend. For one, more and more people are concerned about healthy living. Secondly, there’s a growing interest in natural solutions and some concerns about the use of modern medicines.

Why Modern Medicine?

Modern medicine refers to the standard health care system under the care of professionals such as medical doctors and nurses. Modern medicine is a formal approach to health that has seen significant breakthroughs in the last few decades. Some diseases, such as smallpox, have been eradicated altogether. Other conditions have been largely contained because of scientific research in vaccinations and immunizations to prevent these diseases. Cures and treatments are also being researched and developed for all and every condition you can think of. Thanks to modern medicine, some of the deadliest diseases are being contained with the death rate from heart disease dropping by 60 percent since 1970.

The medical field and pharmaceutical industry have their share of criticism, however. The rate at which new medicines are being created is alarming for many. Some are also concerned about what may sometimes seem like a focus on prevention rather than curing many diseases.

Why Alternative Medicine?

Alternative medicine is an alternative to conventional medical practices. Instead of going for pills for a particular condition, many people are seeking a more holistic or natural alternative treatment. Some examples of this include herbal medicine, acupuncture, chiropractic care, and Ayurvedic medicine. This route is chosen quite often in the case of many chronic illnesses, and many patients have found relief from these different approaches.

One of the concerns with alternative medicine is that, although many of the techniques have been passed down thousands of years, they haven’t gone through the same level of testing as the regulated medical field. Although the solutions are deemed natural, that doesn’t always mean safe.

Why Traditional Medicine?

Traditional medicine comes from indigenous cultures, beliefs, and experiences. An example is traditional Chinese medicine (TCM) which dates back more than 3,000 years. The underlying belief is the balance between yin and yang for optimum health. Traditional medicine is often holistic and uses various methods to treat and prevent many ailments. In TCM, herbs are commonly used including common garlic, while in other cultures, other plant roots are used.

Like alternative medicine, traditional medicine hasn’t been rigorously tested and approved. The safety and effect of these medicines are unregulated. WHO has realized the importance of preserving and integrating traditional medicine into healthcare systems with their Traditional Medicine Strategy for 2014–2023. This promotes complementary medicine which uses standard medicine together with alternative treatments under the watch of a physician.

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