We don’t talk about how Middle Eastern mathematics, with its cold and sterile zeroes, spread throughout the world because “scientists” said it was more effective, tragically displacing the traditional mathematics of the rest of the world. Yet somehow the same argument gets made when we talk about modern medicine.
In “Decolonizing Healthcare” (Commentary, page 9, September 15), the author makes a distinction between Western and non-Western medicine and criticizes the Western approach for ignoring traditional methods. The Western/non-Western divide doesn’t exist. There is a division in medicine, but it’s between the medicine we know works, and the medicine we’re not so sure about.
Modern medicine is not hostile to traditional methods, it just needs to know that they actually make people better. Unfortunately, many traditional methods haven’t been shown to do so. Modern medicine has not avoided these practices because of a lack of understanding, as the author erroneously claims, but because there is no evidence that they actually treat disease. Gambling on such unproven methods wastes limited resources and diverts patients from treatments that have a much greater chance of success.
In many cases where traditional methods have been found to be effective, they are carefully tested and eventually become standard in modern medicine. A favourite example is the antimalarial artemisinin, originally identified from a traditional Chinese herb. This life-saving compound is now produced and used more safely, effectively, and at greatly reduced cost, thanks to modern science and technology.
Modern medicine certainly has many problems. Economic factors have a corrupting influence on patient care. Paternalistic practices can prevent patients from receiving the best possible treatment. Medicine is largely reactive, treating illness rather than proactively promoting health. However, introducing a false concept of “Western medicine” and dismissing all proven medical practice as neocolonial does nothing constructive to address these issues.
– Shane Caldwell,
PhD candidate in Biochemistry