Between nature and the laboratory, a cure for all our ills

Shoba Narayan

Dec 12, 2010


As healthcare debates rage on throughout the world, a heartening event is occurring in my hometown, Bangalore.

Backed by state and central governments, the fourth World Ayurveda Congress is being held in the sprawling Palace Grounds. More than 5,000 delegates are expected to attend and present papers.

The main goal, according to the organisers, is to figure out a way to integrate alternative medicine (they prefer to call it “traditional” medicine) with mainstream health care.

China has attempted something similar with its own indigenous traditional Chinese medicine (TCM). Most Chinese hospitals have acupuncturists and herbalists on staff. In Beijing, a sprawling hospital devoted only to TCM attracts hordes of patients each day.

Alternative medicine, or complementary medicine as some would have it, makes sense, given rising healthcare costs. Intercontinental Marketing Services Health forecasts that the global pharmaceutical market will grow 5 to 7 per cent next year, reaching US$880 billion (Dh3.23 trillion).

The flip side of this staggering number is that 70 per cent of the population, particularly in developing countries, cannot afford western medicines and are therefore not part of this pharmaceutical pie. Instead they rely on alternative medicine for all their healthcare needs. They visit the village healer, or hakim, for cures. Trend forecasters predict that even advanced countries are not exempt from the growing desire to incorporate alternative medicine into traditional healthcare models.

According to Alternative Medicine Online, the British National Health Service runs several hospitals devoted exclusively to homeopathy, and in Germany one out of three drugs prescribed is a herb. One in three Americans has used some form of alternative health care.

As someone who is not dismissive of alternative healing systems, and yet is somewhat sceptical of their claims, I was interested in the ayurvedic congress because of the integrative approach it seemed to take. Like most Indians, I grew up with ayurveda and unani. When I got a cold, my mother would boil some holy basil leaves, steep them in warming spices such as cumin and serve them with honey. My grandfather, an allopathic doctor, depended on his weekly oil massages to get him through his busy practice. Even today, I fall back on ayurvedic herbs when I fall sick.

That said, this 5,000-year-old Indian healing system has failed to keep up with the times. There are no controlled studies of the kind that western pharmaceutical companies have to undertake; there is very little clinical research; and treatment protocols such as nose washes, enemas and sweating have not been contemporised.

Bringing ancient empirical systems into the modern age is a good start. “The purpose of this congress is to have a dialogue on how to integrate ayurveda into allopathic hospitals,” says Dr Issac Mathai, a homeopath who practises in the US, UK and India. Dr Mathai founded Soukya, which offers residential holistic health care at five-star prices.

“Traditional healing systems such as ayurveda and acupuncture don’t work for every illness, but for arthritis, fibromyalgia, irritable bowel syndrome, musculoskeletal conditions, and anything to do with the nerves, we have fantastic treatment protocols,” says Dr Mathai. “One hospital in Kerala is helping the so-called uncurable western conditions like retinal detachment and other eye conditions.”

Dr Mathai estimates there are about 200,000 ayurvedic practitioners in India today. In a study he conducted at a Bangalore hospital, he integrated what he calls “traditional” medicine with allopathic medicine and discovered that it brought down healthcare costs by 50 per cent for acute conditions and 30 per cent for chronic conditions.

“Ayurveda is all about wellness and prevention,” he says. “But it has limitations. It cannot cure diabetes, but it can play a positive role in its management.”

In a pioneering move, the Karnataka state government has invested 10 million rupees (Dh814,683) to start an ayurvedic ward in KC general hospital, the oldest state-run hospital, where low-income households come for care. The payment model follows a three-tier system in which the poor pay nominal rates, the middle-class pay at cost and the rich pay at a level that subsidises the poor.

This is typical in India, where hospitals affiliated with churches and other religious institutions routinely ask for your income when you register; and bill you accordingly.

The Indian healthcare industry is experiencing phenomenal growth and is expected to be a $280bn industry by 2020. No one claims that ayurveda and acupuncture are going to replace allopathy. The best that one can hope for is that the Chinese wall between the two systems will come down.

There are some illnesses such as the asthma my husband suffers from, for instance, that respond better to ancient systems rather than modern steroids. Other illnesses such as rheumatoid arthritis could use the cushion that an oil massage can offer. It may not cure but it will “rejuvenate”, as the ayurvedic doctors like to say.

In the end, I believe the health insurance companies will be the driver. When they embrace alternative medicine as they have started doing in selective hospitals and with certain diseases, the economies of scale will provide the momentum for all healthcare practitioners – traditional and modern – to work together and come up with an integrated model.

It will not only reduce costs, but the preventative protocols that alternative systems focus on could even reduce illnesses.


Shoba Narayan is a writer based in Bangalore and the author of Monsoon Diary


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