Conventional Medicine - Why it is Failing
Daniel-J. Crisafi, ND.A., MH, PhD
According to certain authors, Western medicine has "failed" or, as Laval University professor Fernand Turcotte writes, "Medicine seems to have lost its direction."1 Why do you think conventional medicine finds itself in this state?
Since I have not read Professor Turcotte's article, I do not want to comment on its specific content. On the other hand, one must admit that modern medicine, despite its sometimes spectacular results in emergency situations, seems to be either going around in circles or to have simply "lost its direction". Western medicine performs small - and sometimes large - miracles when it comes to infectious diseases or emergency situations. However, it seems to have a hard time treating chronic conditions in an effective and permanent manner.
In this more or less philosophical article, I will give myself permission to criticize conventional medicine by pointing out four major shortcomings that are, in my opinion, the source of its failure. Note that the word “criticism” here is used in its etymological sense rather than its modern counterpart. As a matter of fact, at its root the word "criticize" does not have the negative connotation that we lend it. "Criticism stems from a need of not holding oneself to the basic fact, the confused appearance of things, affirmations, attitudes, but - on the contrary - to run them through a filter of reasoning which evaluates and passes a judgment of appreciation which may be logical, moral or esthetic.”2
By the way, it is interesting to note that these four shortcomings do not exist in most traditional or folk medicines. Therefore, my critique will consist, in part, in pointing out the differences between these traditions and our Western medicine.
If I use folk medicine in my comparison, it's because these ancient methods have proven themselves over hundreds, perhaps thousands, of years. Apart from some esoteric aspects associated with these approaches, they have shown their efficacy and have enjoyed surprising longevity. Incidentally, the World Health Organization notes that "Traditional medicine (TM) is an important and often underestimated part of health care. TM has a long history of use in health maintenance and in disease prevention and treatment, particularly for chronic disease."3
Conventional medicine, like most other sciences, suffers from "scientism". Scientism, which became particularly omnipresent at the end of the19th century, is the idea that only through applying scientific methods can we deduce the truth. "Scientism affirms that, apart from scientific knowledge, no other form of knowledge is legitimate because only scientific knowledge is true and real. It is a form of reductionism where the only valid knowledge is that which is scientifically proven - the rest being irrationality, beliefs or ideologies. Therefore, any knowledge that is not based on science, such as the traditional knowledge of our native peoples, popular knowledge and folk knowledge are disqualified.4
In reading this definition by Mrs. Parizeau, the reaction of a doctor I know comes to mind. When I mentioned to him that I practice naturopathic medicine, he simply started laughing! To him, naturopathic practice was irrational, somewhat akin to someone who wants to cure a patient of an ingrown toenail by having him swallow earthworms. For those who espouse this philosophy of scientism, only that which can be proven by means of our modern analytic methods has any value. Ah yes, this medical philosophy leads one to invariably reject all that has not been "proven" by science.
Conventional medicine, therefore, has benefited from a few decades of scientific study in a laboratory or clinic. Our modern medical theories are based on these controlled studies. But medical science is not the fruit of a laboratory or clinic, based on studies done - in most cases - in a sterile and artificial environment that has no bearing on reality. In contrast, traditional medicine is the fruit of hundreds of years of observation by hundreds of practitioners helping thousands of patients in actual life situations.
Thus, traditional remedies benefit from hundreds, if not thousands, of years of observation and experimentation. Observation is the basis of the science: we observe a particular phenomenon, then we develop a hypothesis which we then try to confirm.
Over 2000 years ago, the Chinese observed that a plant, Ma Huang or ephedra, improved the breathing of those who consumed it. Its use has been documented since the days of the Han Dynasty, about 2200 years ago. Today, a chemical copy of its active agent, ephedra, is used in Western medicine for the same symptom relief observed by the Chinese.
For millennia, traditional Chinese medicine linked sleep disorders with intestinal health. Ridiculous, you say. No! For the last twenty years, scientists have admitted that almost 2/3 of the serotonin in the body is produced in the intestine.5 Well, serotonin is the neurotransmitter that is required for proper sleep. It has calming effects and reduces anxiety.
So, the first great problem with conventional medicine is its excessive reductionism. By refusing to accept data gathered over hundreds, even thousands of years of observation and experience, it deprives itself of an enormous database of knowledge.
Let me end this section with a quote from Einstein: “Information is not knowledge. The only source of knowledge is experience.”
Cartesianism is a philosophy fathered by French mathematician René Descartes. Rational and logical, Descartes' philosophy led to the separation of body and mind, of spiritual and material. When we talk about someone with a Cartesian point of view, we are referring not only to his ability to analyze things, but also his ability to dissect or separate them in order to isolate the different components.6
Thus, the Cartesian approach to medicine is a mechanistic one which is the basis of medical specialization. Thus, when I mention Cartesianism in this article, I am referring, above all, to the concept of separation or isolation. Jan Patocka wrote that Descartes "contributes to scientific specialization"7 and Étienne Tourtelle wrote that Descartes, by separating the body from the soul, became the Father of Mechanistic Medicine.8 According to Damasio, this idea of the dichotomy of the individual, that is to say this theory of separation between the psyche and the physical body "combined with the expansion of knowledge and an increased tendency toward specialization, contributes to diminish the quality of modern medicine rather than improve it.”9
The idea of Cartesianism in medicine is quite simple: a human being is a machine and not an integrated living organism. Therefore, if a part of the body does not work properly or a biochemical reaction does not take place as it should, we fix it or replace the defective part. You have a problem with one of your knees, no problem, we'll replace it! A part of your intestine becomes inflamed on a regular basis? Don't worry, we'll take out the bit that's giving you trouble!
This mechanistic approach which consists of isolating the different parts of the body eventually led to medical specialization. In the field of auto mechanics, some garages specialize in tires, others handle mufflers and still others fix transmissions. Well, in mainstream medicine, it's much the same thing. The gastroenterologist specializes in intestines; the cardiologist in the cardiovascular system; and the neurologist focuses on the nervous system. Ok, I think you get the picture.
Unfortunately, consumers of health services themselves have adopted this mechanistic approach. The patient "presents his body to the doctor as he would his watch to a watchmaker or his car to a mechanic so the expert can fix, add, remove, replace, tighten, loosen, adjust or recharge whatever piece needs work so that the machine functions as it should."10
The problem with this Cartesian approach is that a human being is not a machine. We are an integrated and complete living organism. It is rare, except in the case of an accident, that a health problem is truly localized. In most cases, the noticeable symptoms may be localized, but it is generally the entire individual that is out of balance.
Let us take, for example, the serotonin mentioned previously. A lack of serotonin can cause a variety of symptoms such as pain, depression, insomnia, headaches, and gastro-intestinal problems.11 Within our modern medical system, a patient suffering from these symptoms, someone with fibromyalgia, for example, will be referred to various specialists and undoubtedly will be prescribed a plethora of medications. However, the global profile of this patient will never be sketched out and the problem will never truly be cured.
All traditional medical systems see the individual human in his/her entirety and thus take a holistic approach considering aspects of each individual's affective, physical, psychological, social and spiritual make-up. Conventional medicine ignores most of these elements completely, although some doctors have targeted and adopted this concept. One of the problems and one of the causes of our medical failure is, therefore, adopting the Cartesian approach to human life.
All traditional medicines interpret health and illness from a particular conception of reality; a belief system that encompasses and explains the human being and the Universe within a particular philosophical model. These concepts and philosophies can be interpreted and expressed from the perspective of a reality that seems esoteric – as they may be, at times. But, the fact remains that they all have a structure of thinking that explains human reality, its health as well as its sickness.
This is true of Ayurvedic medicine, Native American medicine, Chinese medicine or traditional European medicine as practiced by Hippocrates. As an example, let's look at Hippocratic Medicine whose roots date back to Hippocrates in the 3rd century B.C. This type of medicine was made popular in the 20th century by the French physician Paul Carton (1875-1947). Note is that Carton considered that all living things possess a vital source, that is to say, a force whose purpose is to maintain health. Many reactions that we consider bad, a fever for example, are in reality efforts by the organism to balance a situation.
We know now, for example, that raising the temperature of the body improves the activity of anti-bodies.12 Until recently, the official medical approach consisted of using medication to reduce fevers even when the patient was not in danger. Carton pointed out that by reducing the fever we are also reducing the efficacy of the immune system in fighting the infectious agent. This approach, also known as Vitalism, explains the appearance of various symptoms that are not due to damage to tissue or to biochemical imbalances.
When a health practitioner operates from a point of reference that explains reality in its entirety, he can evaluate all known conditions that play a role in the maintenance of health or in the development of illness.
The health practitioner who has adopted a Vitalist approach will know how to interpret illness within this paradigm and adapt his intervention such that it promotes rather than harms this vital force. For the Westerner, this would be called the vital force, in traditional Chinese medicine, the "chi", in Ayurvedic medicine, "prana", etc.
Mainstream medicine has lost this point of reference. It has, in effect, lost its way.
The basis of science is that every effect has a cause. Indeed, if things were to happen for no reason, entirely at random, there can be nothing new to discover and nothing can be predicted. Science and the discoveries of experimental science have developed in the West because the society is one that is influenced by a Judeo-Christian concept of the world. Western peoples believed that the world was created intelligently and that, therefore, there was a reason, a cause for everything. According to this concept, nature as created by God was controlled by immutable laws and not by fickle spirits which manipulated its based on their whims. As far back as the end of the 5th century, Augustin of Hippo (Saint Augustine) wrote, "Miracles are not contrary to nature, but only contrary to what we know about nature."13 This vision of the world allowed and encouraged experimentation and research.
Of all modern sciences, modern medicine is surely the one that no longer practices this approach when you consider the manner in which it manages sickness. Today, if a patient with high blood pressure goes to the doctor, he will generally be prescribed a drug to lower it. Another patient suffering from high cholesterol will be prescribed Statins and a third, with Type II diabetes, will get a prescription for Glucophage. Unfortunately, it is all too rare that doctors trained in modern medicine ask questions such as, "Why is this patient exhibiting this symptom now?" or "What has changed to cause these symptoms to develop?" The loss of or inattention to the causal approach has an immediate impact - one which often leads to a localised intervention which does little or nothing to cure the deep-rooted cause of the illness.
It would seem that vitality and health are alien to conventional medical system which radically ignores the laws of life and of health. "We can therefore imagine the blunders and havoc brought about by medical care which does not target anything more than the elimination of symptoms without searching for, nor reversing, the true causes of disease."14
Finally, one of the biggest problems and one of the biggest shortcomings of mainstream medicine is that the patient is not made aware of his/her responsibilities. We may talk to them about a healthy diet or getting enough exercise, but this advice is so generalized and so vague that the patient is not motivated to make the necessary changes. Even in situations where diet and exercise play an incontestable role, such as is the case with high cholesterol, few doctors offer concrete dietary recommendations and even fewer will refer the patient to a dietitian. Some doctors - those that are more well-read and committed – may, perhaps, advise their patients to modify their diet and exercise regularly before prescribing drugs, but they are few and far between. Thus, the patient is not given the responsability for taking the situation into their own hands. Dr. Catherine Kousmine writes, "I would like each individual to understand... that he is responsible for himself, that the body he has been given should be managed in the same way as any other asset."16
Mainstream medicine does not teach the patient. It is a shame, because the term “doctor” (from the Latin docere - which means “to teach”) means “professor”.15 Today, few doctors are trained or inclined to teach their patients.
My opinion may appear harsh to some. At this point, I would like to reiterate certain points that will help mitigate its impact, without denying the pertinence.
First of all, and one would have to be blind not to notice it, mainstream medicine has saved innombrable lives. We cannot deny that advances in surgery, neonatal medicine, emergency medicine and microbiology have all saved lives.
Secondly, doctors are not to blame for the current situation. Admittedly, they are trained to establish a diagnosis and apply a quick fix - whether it be with surgery or a prescription - according to the patient's symptoms or laboratory analyses.
Thirdly, with our current health care system, the doctor generally does not have enough time with their patients. Therefore, the medical practitioner simply has no opportunity to search for the deep-rooted causes of their patient's malaise and teach them how to better manage their health.
Finally, we must admit that various traditional medical systems are tainted with a certain esotericism which has a tendency to discourage individuals with a scientific or analytic mind. In some cases, they may be right, but we must not, as we say, throw out the baby with the bath water.
By recognizing the efficacy of the more serious traditional medical systems and by allying themselves with these, conventional medicine could create an environment of health care that is the envy of the world. This has already been suggested by the National Aboriginal Health Organization, noting that "Traditional medicines have been used for thousands of years by the native peoples of Canada and have shown their efficacy in the treatment of a vast array of health problems... It is important that research continues to examine the safety and efficacy of traditional medicine used alone and in combination with Western methods."17
I leave the final word to Dr. Paul Carton: "What matters, above all, is to teach men that human life does not unfold by chance or external circumstances, but that it is dependent on a group of precise laws that grant health and peace to those who know how to follow them.18
1 Turdotte, Fernand La Faillite éthique de la médecine en occident, Vie Économique Vol. 3 No. 1 (2011)
3 Stratégie de l’OMS pour la médecine traditionnelle pour 2014-2023, Organisation mondiale de la Santé 2013
4 Marie-Hélène Parizeau, Biotechnologies, nanotechnologies, écologie, entre science et idéologie (éd. Quae, 2010)
5 O'Mahony SM, Clarke G, Borre YE, Dinan TG, Cryan JF. Serotonin, tryptophan metabolism and the brain-gut-microbiome axis. Behav Brain Res. 2015 Jan 15;277:32-48.
6 Jean-Baptiste Bordas-Demoulin Le Cartésianisme ou la véritable rénovation des sciences, J. Hezel Éditeur (1843)
7 Patocka, Jan Le Monde Naturel et le Mouvement de l'Existence Humaine, Kluwer Academic Publishers (1988)
8 Étienne Tourtelle Histoire Philosophique de la Médecine, Levrault, Schoell et Co. Éditeurs (1804)
9 Damasio, Antonio L'Erreure de Descartes, Odile Jabob Édit. (2008)
10 André Schlemmer, La Méthode Naturelle en Médecine, Éditions du Seuil (1969)
11 PDR for Nutritional Supplements Medical Economics Press (2001)
12 T. A. Mace, L. Zhong, C. Kilpatrick, E. Zynda, C.-T. Lee, M. Capitano, H. Minderman, E. A. Repasky. Differentiation of CD8+ T cells into effector cells is enhanced by physiological range hyperthermia. Journal of Leukocyte Biology, 2011; 90 (5): 951 DOI: 10.1189/jlb.0511229
13 Augustin d'Hippone, Augustin Devoille (traducteur), Oeuvre de St Augustin, Editions la Bibliothèque Digitale (2012)
14 Carton, Paul cité par Christopher Vasey dans Le message du Dr. Paul Carton : L'Hippocrate du XXe siècle Éditions Trois Fontaines (1990)
15 "Médecins, d'ou vient le nom", La Société, l'individu, et la Médecine, Université d'Ottawa http://www.med.uottawa.ca/sim/data/Physician_f.htm
16 Kousmine, Catherine cité dans http://www.solvida.org/la-dr-catherine-kousmine/index.html
17 Intégrer les médecines traditionnelles aux traitements de la médecine occidentale, l’Organisation nationale de la santé autochtone (2012)
18 Carton, Paul cité par Christopher Vasey dans Le message du Dr. Paul Carton : L'Hippocrate du XXe siècle Éditions Trois Fontaines (1990)