This Week’s Investigation: Why Do We Prefer Allopathic Medicine?

Issue 15, Volume 113

By Maya Soni 

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In Europe in the Middle Ages, medieval doctors treated the bubonic plague by draining blood from the ailing patient. Such a technique seems extreme, and altogether nonsensical. However, for thousands of years, traditional medicine has been used across the world: Ayurveda in South Asia, Traditional Chinese Medicine in China, and homeopathic medicine in Germany. Despite the fact that 80 percent of Asians and Africans still rely on traditional medicine, it is largely rejected in the United States. Historically, the scientific community has ignored these medicines in favor of Western, or allopathic medicine, the branch of medicine studied by the vast majority of medical students at university, and practiced by conventional doctors in the United States. My question this week is: why do most Americans choose Western medicine over other available forms of medicine? 

To solve this mystery, one must first understand why the public trusts Western medicine so much. The roots of modern Western medicine lie in the Scientific Revolution. Occurring in the 15th century, this era led to countless discoveries that lay the groundwork for modern science, including the ubiquitous scientific method. Rather than using techniques based on imagined philosophy, like bloodletting, new medicines had to have directly visible and measurable benefits for the body. The practices that developed during this time, such as rigorous testing and the collection of quantifiable data, define modern Western science and medicine today. 

To understand why Western medicines are favored over homeopathic remedies, it is vital to understand the role of scientific institutions that regulate medicines, like the Food and Drug Administration (FDA). The FDA implements regulatory testing and certifies the drugs that meet their standards. 

The Food & Drug Administration (FDA) approves of potentially beneficial new drugs through a multi-step review process. During clinical trials, controlled experiments are conducted in order to measure drug effectiveness and weigh the benefits with the drawbacks. Then, scientists compare these results to those of similar drugs. Finally, a set of rules for safe distribution and use is developed. 

The label of “FDA approved” holds a lot of weight in American society because of the thorough scientific research mandated to earn it. Though there are some complaints about the methods the FDA uses—they are too lenient, their standards need to be updated, etc.—the vast majority of Americans trust the FDA enough to use the medicines it approves.

Hypothetically, alternative medicines should also be able to pass through FDA testing and become more mainstream. However, there hasn’t been large-scale testing on alternative medicines in any country, including the ones where alternative medicines are widely used by the general population, like in Germany or India. What makes alternative medicines different from allopathic ones?

“Alternative medicine” is a general name for countless different medical practices from around the world, all of them deviating from Western medicine. Even though there are many different types, they do share some common characteristics. Most notably, alternative medicinal sciences focus on holistic healing, the practice of addressing a health condition through the lens of the body as whole. If a patient came to an Ayurvedic doctor with chronic headaches, for example, the doctor would try to identify the lifestyle or dietary factors contributing to the patient’s presenting symptoms; from the holistic perspective, it is impossible to treat the patient without understanding the entire profile of their body. Western medicine rarely works cross-domain, and instead, doctors specialize in a specific field or region of the body. Though specialization ensures that each doctor is extremely knowledgeable about their field, it also makes it difficult to address problems related to more than one aspect of the body without an entire team of professionals across specialties. It also means medications often have side effects. A study conducted by the National Institutes of Health (NIH) found that 81 percent of FDA approved drugs have 10 or more side effects. To contrast, alternative medicinal treatments are intended to stabilize the whole system as opposed to just eliminating one symptom. Side effects are not disregarded because from this perspective, medications are meant to ensure the health of all body systems. Thus, alternative medicines usually do not have the unwelcome side effects prevalent in many allopathic medications. Despite the pros and cons of each, why, of the two, is the Western allopathic method so widely accepted?

For starters, trust in allopathic medicine derives from trust in organizations like the FDA, which test new drugs before they hit the market. Allopathic medicine itself is suited to and more easily proven by controlled experiments and analysis of data, which are the foundation of the FDA’s review process. This makes sense: both the FDA and allopathic medicine have risen from the ideas of the scientists of 15th century Europe. On the other hand, alternative medicines have different roots, and are naturally less suited to the modern scientific method. There are several particular characteristics that make them hard to test using clinical trials. Firstly, because of the concept of holistic healing, a treatment is often directed at multiple symptoms at once. For example, an Ayurvedic practitioner may treat an over abundance of ama, or an impaired ability to digest and metabolize, to decrease both variability of appetite and drowsiness. This makes it difficult to clearly assess which symptoms have improved, and which symptoms are influencing other outcomes. In addition, alternative treatments rely on multiple factors, such as considering lifestyle habits like sleep and diet. These factors are hard to keep constant in order to conduct a proper controlled experiment, increasing the likelihood of various experimental errors, like placebo effects. Lastly, quantitative measurements are difficult to take; patient reports after treatment often contain descriptions of well-being, or clarity of mind, which are hard to measure and can only be called notable effects if they are consistent over a long period of time. 

The overall findings of this investigation are as follows: widespread public trust in allopathic medicines is because they are processed by reliable scientific organizations, like the FDA. Due to an overlap in the structure of the FDA and allopathic medicine, both of which use ideas developed during the Scientific Revolution, allopathic medicine is easily analyzed by the FDA. However, alternative medicines are not as easily analyzed because of practices that deviate from allopathic ones, such as focusing on whole body healing and long-term solutions. Now the primary question of this investigation can be answered: The mistrust of alternative medications in the United States stems from the unsuitability of the FDA’s research structure for alternative medicinal practices. As to whether alternative medicines should be trusted, more clinical research is required. What is clear is that alternative medicines should be tested, and that accounting for non-Western science and technology is crucial for medical advancement.