Focus on Western Medicine

A daily dose of medicine / prescriptive drugs.

Many of my patients express frustration about their experiences with the western medical system. Just last week a friend told me “so far I have dealt with 5 different people about this problem.” People feel that they are seen not as a person by their doctor and other practitioners in the system, but instead as a set of chemical values and increasingly as dollar signs. There is a feeling that they are pushed from one specialist to another and it is rare that someone provides answers or takes responsibility. And increasingly they feel that tests, which they must pay for, are performed solely for the profit of the private corporations that have raided our healthcare system. I understand these frustrations and I experience them myself.

As a participant in this modern system and as a practitioner trained in the ancient tradition of Chinese medicine, I am in a unique position to help explain each of them in more detail. My goal is to help you look to each tradition for its strengths and stop looking for answers that are impossible for one or the other to provide. (See my article Focus on Chinese Medicine.)

Western medicine has a very unique take on human health. It examines only the physical body and focuses on signs and symptoms of physical disease. I say unique because this may be the only medical system in history that limits itself to the physical. (There is of course psychiatry  which strives to “treat” emotions with chemicals that affect the brain, also a material approach). The central theme of this approach has been germ theory. This attributes most problems to something that got into us from the outside and made us sick and/or disrupted our internal function. Germ theory examines bacteria and viruses which are ever-changing, mutating and adapting at speeds much too fast to respond to in a real-time manner with a new medication or treatment method. This leaves researchers, pharmaceutical companies and doctors in a constant state of trying to catch up to the germs to create new chemicals to kill them. These often become ineffective rather quickly.

For internal conditions the western approach is a practice of domination medicine. Drugs that affect internal functions force a change in the physiology that may reduce symptoms but often create other problems or new diseases simultaneously. For example, antibiotics can kill bacteria so they can help an infected finger. But taken orally they have a system-wide effect, for example killing the beneficial bacteria in our digestive tract and requiring our liver to detoxify the byproducts. And what of the effects on the brain and every single tissue in the body that they infiltrate? These are all real effects of domination treatments, not “side effects.”

There is nothing inherently wrong about this physical viewpoint, it just offers a very limited lens for examining the wildly complex realm of human health. The great strengths of western medicine are acute care and trauma. When a sickness is very intense, like a severe infection, antibiotics and hospital care are most often very effective. When someone breaks a bone or has a life-threatening injury, surgery and drugs can save their life. I am so thankful that I had access to western medicine when I broke bones and had a significant heart event.

It is extremely helpful to accept that the focus on disease management does not include an understanding of what creates health. For example, asking your medical doctor about diet will lead nowhere, first because she has no training in it, and second because there is limited recognition in disease management that a quality diet can improve health or that the current mainstream American diet causes illness. Likewise, it is unrealistic to expect that your MD can advise you about acupuncture’s effectiveness or about any “alternative” healthcare modality. Unless they are motivated to seek answers from other systems themselves they have no grounds on which to render an opinion. Medical doctors are trained solely to identify a named disease and treat it with either pharmaceuticals, surgery or physical therapy. The current medical system is what has come to dominate the narrative in today’s world where a complex array of scientific, political and economic forces influence our perception of its messages. It is important to realize that it does not have all of the answers about health and disease.

Western medicine does not consider emotions and their link to physical illness. Emotions are notoriously impossible to measure in quantitative units because they vary as much as the number of human beings on the planet. Experientially, everyone alive can verify that their emotional state can make them physically sick in some way. Worry can upset digestion, fear can create back pain, and anger can cause high blood pressure. Material science simply has no way of linking emotions to disruptions in physical health or locations in the body where they may be causing pain. Emotional and physical issues cannot be viewed as separate; mind and body are one package. Emotions happen in our body since our soul and mind are housed there, and our body reflects our emotional states and experiences.

The diagnostic method of western medicine is to measure various aspects of the physical body and correlate these measurements to the problem the patient is experiencing. Blood work is assumed to assess internal functional issues and disease processes. These tests can certainly indicate disease states and evolving problems, but are they always diagnostically conclusive? No they are not. MRI, CT and X-ray all look for material factors like torn muscles, tumors and bone spurs to conclude that these are the cause of the patient’s symptoms. As patients we understandably want these tests to offer an absolute answer but often they do not.

As investigative material science has evolved, new techniques have allowed ever more chemicals and molecules to be measured, reinforcing the earlier splitting of the physical body into its subsystems with specialties for each. For example dermatology, urology, neurology and gastroenterology all treat their area in isolation. The difficulty is that the whole person quickly becomes lost in this system. With the ever-finer microscopic view of specialization, the impact on other body systems when treating for example an infected finger with antibiotics is seldom considered. What happens to the gut and the brain from ingestion of these antibiotics?

What happens when the test shows one thing, the treatment attempts to address it, and the problem does not improve? For instance when medical images show degeneration of the lumbar spine in the presence of  low back pain but surgery does not reduce the pain or makes it worse? Does it mean there can’t be any pain, “it’s all in their head”? Does it mean the surgeon made a mistake? Or does it simply mean that an image of a physical abnormality does not 100% define the problem? If not, then what else could be causing it? Emotions, maybe? Clearly the limited material view, namely that because nerves carry sensory information a nerve has to be the answer when there is pain, does not correlate in every case.

If nerves are not the answer for all pain, if images and tests do not always define a problem, if treatment with pharmaceuticals, surgery or physical therapy do not help and may hurt, then maybe it is time to put down this particular method of examination and pick up another method with a wider-angle multi-colored lens.

art credit: photo by Mika Baumeister on Unsplash

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