Traditional Medicine vs Holistic Medicine


We tend to think of medicine in terms of what’s prescribed by physicians. In truth, the definition of medicine isn’t limited to what we might find in a typical medical office. The term “medicine” is broad – it’s a large umbrella that encompasses everything that helps maintain health and prevent disease. Although we’ve come to rely on the current technological comforts of modern medicine, also known as Western or traditional medicine, holistic medicine is as important. It has undergone thousands of years of trial and error, and its contributions can’t be discounted. Holistic medicine falls under the definition of medicine.

What is Traditional Medicine?

There’s some confusion with the term “traditional medicine”. The World Health Organization (WHO) defines traditional medicine as “the sum total of the knowledge, skill, and practices based on the theories, beliefs, and experiences indigenous to different cultures, whether explicable or not, used in the maintenance of health as well as in the prevention, diagnosis, improvement or treatment of physical and mental illness.” In this definition, the WHO is referring to what we consider “holistic medicine”.

However, many researchers and health professionals consider Western medicine to be “traditional medicine” — as in, practicing medicine in the Western tradition. There may be some evidence of using the term “traditional medicine” to represent what we know as modern Western medicine. Though it has been developed through technological advances, Western medicine has its roots in millennia of traditions, so we’ll use the term “traditional medicine” to refer to modern Western medicine.

Traditional medicine has many names — conventional medicine, mainstream medicine, modern medicine and Western medicine. For the most part, traditional medicine is what you encounter in major hospitals and clinics. It is the scientifically grounded and evidence-based medicine that we rely on for our healthcare. Traditional medicine has helped humans eradicate smallpox, perform successful heart transplants, develop synthetic organs and tissues, and extend their average lifespan.

What is Holistic Medicine?

Holistic medicine is more in line with the WHO’s definition of traditional medicine. It considers the person as a whole, rather than just their physical health. Holistic medicine has many names — complementary medicine, alternative medicine or non-mainstream medicine.

Much of what we refer to as holistic medicine has been embraced by other cultures as their form of medicine for thousands of years. Traditional Chinese medicine, for example, can be considered as holistic or non-mainstream medicine. However, modern Chinese medicine still incorporates age-old beliefs and practices. Other cultures have traditions that we may consider holistic but are the bedrock to their medical approach. Yoga, acupuncture and Reiki are all health practices that fall under the holistic category.

Which is Better?

When trying to decide between traditional or holistic medicine, the question might not be, “Which is better?”, but rather, “How can I use both to maintain my health?”

Many healthcare professionals recognize the need to incorporate holistic medicine into their patients’ treatment plans. A newer branch of medicine, called integrative medicine, has been formed as a response to patient requests for a more holistic approach to traditional Western medicine. The goals in integrative medicine are to take the patient’s whole being into account, factor in other approaches to medicine, and incorporate the patient’s wishes into their medical care.

Humans have certainly enjoyed extended lifespans in the last few millennia, but it’s not only because of traditional Western medicine. Humans have built communities, learned agriculture and developed bonds with each other, and other forms of medicine have helped usher in these changes. Cultural traditions and community healers were vital to the development of the human race, and it is the collective effort that has resulted in longer lifespans.

That said, integrative medicine may open doors to new ideas. A diverse approach to health may be the medicine of the future. After all, medicine isn’t just a science — it’s an art.


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