Medical Tradition - where from, where to?

An overview in the context of history, global perspectives and research

Economically, we stand at a very interesting point in history. Nine year cycles (the Juglar) come and go, yet we may now stand in the downwave section of a 60-70 year Kondratieff cycle. Ahead we may see technological innovation and advance, but this may be accompanied by some years of low inflation, low interest rates, possible stagnation of areas of the economy, and hauntingly, possible deflation.

Humanity is also at the end of an epoch of external material advances, compared to human emotional evolution. The revolutions agricultural, transport, literacy, electric power, communication and IT have brought much of Western humanity to relative material riches. The turn of the millennium has brought with it new challenges, yet also new opportunities for growth. In the downwave of a Kondratieff cycle, societies often tire of an orgy of materialism, and reflect inwards on new spiritual and emotional insights - exhausted by dazzling baubles, people start to search for meaning in life. This movement is often society wide, as the collective psyche retrenches, takes stock, and starts to ask what really matters.

In the history of medicine, we stand at a pivotal point. We can observe the ebb and flow of trends and fashions, the fortunes and favours of tradition. Looking back, we see great technological and pharmaceutical advances, stretching back over a century. Further back, in Western tradition, we can see the rise of surgery, of homeopathy, of herbalism, and the decline of heroic purging, bleedings and cuppings. (At the end of the 19th century there were more homeopathic hospitals in the USA than any others.)

Outside Western tradition, we can observe a continuum of use and development of Chinese energy meridian theory, and the use of herbs and acupuncture to balance the mind body complex. On the Indian subcontinent, we can see the Ayurvedic tradition, again looking to explain and balance the energy system of the body, and work to restore harmony in the mind and the physical body. Both of these traditions stretch over hundreds, or thousands of years. Tribal medicines in various cultures take a holistic view of mind and body, ranging from Shamanism in Russia, to Kahuna in Polynesia and traditional approaches in African and American (South and North) cultures.

Over many cultures, hands-on healing and massage has been used for aeons, whilst more recent additions include osteopathy, chiropractic and others.

Looking across the recent scenery of health practices, other complementary therapies have developed: aromatherapy, reflexology, kinesiology, flower essence therapy, modern medical herbalism, and others.

Returning to the Western tradition, we can look back to the Cartesian split of the 16th century, and the great strides that have been made in looking at the minute details of tissues, of molecules, and in structural anatomy, physiology, pathology and pharmacology. Yet the Cartesian split, that allowed the doctors to concentrate on the body, whilst leaving the mind to the Church, can be transcended. The forces of science can yet be marshalled to help us investigate and know more about the real mind body spirit continuum that is the reality of being of each of us. In concentrating on the minutiae, may we have lost sight of the greater overview?

Healing the Cartesian divide, however, requires the biomedical sciences to listen to modern physics, and to comprehend that all is made up of waveforms and vibrations. Biomedicine will learn that we all affect each other, and that looking at the invisible and unmeasured, may yet offer huge, unexpected and even fun results. To do so, we may have to adopt and develop new techniques and perhaps - horror! - think about using the human body/mind as an instrument of detection - and an instrument of healing - in order to learn in new ways.

After all, life is a journey of learning.

What could be more interesting to look at than people, how they tick, what makes them tick better, and how to help them do this?

To look at this area would well be in tune with the spirit of the age - for we now have an articulate, well educated population in the West, with ample scope for satisfying our material needs - the lower of Maslow's hierarchy of needs. Much of the population in the UK and in the USA are interested in and using complementary approaches to health. So now it may be time to look at self-actualisation and how to facilitate it - to help people feel better in simple low-tech ways. After all, if you feel better you heal better - scientifically proven - as well as 'Common sense'!

Many people are devoting effort to self-care and self-nurture - yoga, nutrition, tai chi, Alexander technique, massage, art therapy, creative writing - and feeling better for it.

Scientific research tells us that if you feel better you heal better. And it also tells us that if, post-operatively you can see a tree, you heal quicker and get out of hospital faster. But nobody asks "Why?"

Learning theory (Kolb) tells us that in our lives we continually traverse the circle of Experience, Reflect, Learn. Then we start again with a new Experience. Reflection needs time and support, and sometimes we get stuck on reflection regarding certain incidents, frames of mind, or ways of viewing the world. Perhaps Western Biomedicine has fallen into the trap of reflecting Western society's obsession of collecting innumerable experiences without taking time to reflect upon them, and thus gain full wisdom. It sometimes seems as if we are not Human Beings, savouring and enjoying each moment of life, good or bad, but Human Doings, addicted to rushing along to gather ever more experiences, but never fully reflecting upon all the ones we've already collected!

What supports and nurtures us to feel and heal better, to learn, to reflect and to move forwards? How is it that nature - a garden - flowers - a views - clouds in the sky - the sea - can all uplift yet calm and centre us? What is the nature of the calming, healing vibes hidden in nature that can achieve this?

These are exciting questions to ask for the field of health - and perhaps, courageously - even for the culture of medicine. Other exciting questions might be: Does attention to health on a population basis reduce the incidence of illness? What if we teach everyone (to read)? Does that have benefit for society? What if we teach everyone (information technology)? What if we teach everyone simple self-help health technology? What if everyone learns to use the healing power of nurture from nature, even if only to enhance our own self-healing power - to harness the immense power of 'placebo' - in reality the action of the invisible force that maintain Claude Bernard's milieu interieur - to feel better?

What if flower essences (whose action Paracelsus, the 'father of medicine' described, and which Dr Edward Bach elaborated in the 1930s) really work? How do they work? What is the science behind their mode of action?

Perhaps physics, which can now show us how words and thoughts can influence patterns in water, (see presumably at a vibrational level - has answers that we in biomedical sciences have unluckily ignored, because we have been focussed on a particular mindset.

Challenging questions to even voice! Visionary? Barmy? Off the planet? Actually, probably not - more just looking at where we have come from and listening to the whispers of where we may be going?

And how do we even start to answer such questions - and is it for the benefit of all mankind? Certainly there will be no possibility of any patent applying to vibrational tools such as the healing vibes we can each harvest from nature - and even the intellectual copyright of the advances may be there for the low tech, low cost benefit of many. This barrier will prevent the majority of scientists from ever being allowed the opportunity to ask such questions, shackled as many are to short term commercial success, or trapped within the confines of the Newtonian paradigm that biomedicine clings to.

This barrier will prevent some companies from engaging in low cost (by pharmaceutical industry standards) research, and from exploiting the potential training opportunities, as large as training the whole population in information technology.

The way ahead - the future - could be very different from just progression in traditional pharmaceutical and genetic research - but only if there's a gardener who's prepared to plant some seeds and nurture them!

Dr Andrew Tresidder MB BS MRCGP