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by Ron Kennedy, M.D., Santa Rosa, CA

Dr. Kennedy I will limit my comments to the current culture of alternative medicine in the West in the 21st century. While Ayurvedic medicine and traditional Chinese medicine are surely "alternative" in the context of Western medicine, they are also very traditional in the context of the culture of the East. To understand what it means to be an "alternative doctor" in the context of the 21st century West, it is necessary to understand a bit of history. Through the middle ages and until the mid-nineteenth century the role of doctor was reserved for members of the upper class. The medical profession existed in the context of people who were born into circumstances which enabled them to be educated for it. Before there were universities doctors were educated directly by other doctors on a one-to-one basis, that is to say teacher apprentice relationships. The base of knowledge developed in this manner was shared through the publication of books and by direct doctor to doctor contact. The nature of 19th century medical schools still strongly reflected this teacher apprentice approach. Probably the most outstanding and culminating example of this tradition existed in the life of the English physician Sir William Osler who eventually practiced in America and died in 1919. The year of his death marks, approximately, the beginning of the age of "Big Pharma" and the extraordinary influence of the, some would say out of control, pharmaceutical industry.

While there were many drugs available to doctors, even from antiquity, the advent of penicillin in the 1920s changed the philosophical landscape of medicine for the remainder of the 20th century. It was so startling that an infection could be stopped and cured by simply giving a drug (which was, by the way, derived directly from nature), the idea developed that at least from a theoretical point of view pharmaceuticals could be developed to cure each and every disease. Unfortunately this turned out not to be the case, however philosophical landscape does not change in step with reality. We have known for decades that burning fossil fuels does damage to the environment, yet clearly we will burn every last fossil fuel before we turn to solar and wind power as the exclusive sources of our energy needs. Likewise, the idea that there is some drug (some molecular structure) out there yet to be invented to cure every disease will not die until the people who bet our lives on this idea themselves pass from the scene.

Beginning about 1920, the professional descendants of traditional medicine and of Sir William Osler have slowly been transformed under the influence of Big Pharma into carriers of this philosophical virus, namely the idea that pharmaceuticals are the answer to everything. This continues to be accomplished by the extraordinary profits of the pharmaceutical industry which enable it to essentially buy Western medicine and put it in its hip pocket. Medical school curriculi and medical journal publications are determined largely under the influence of drug company grants and the favors bestowed on medical school faculty and on journal publicists by the pharmaceutical industry which would make any Washington, DC beltway lobbyist proud.

Traditional medicine has, therefore, been turned on its head and we now call it "mainstream medicine." "Mainstream" simply means that almost everyone is doing it. It turns out that human begins are the only herd animals without hooves. If the lead horse in a stampede heads southwest, and there is a herd of 999 horses behind it, all 1000 turn southwest, even if southwest leads to the edge of a cliff. Mainstream medicine has, in many ways, gone over the cliff. Medicine, even in the days when it was "traditional," was (and still is) autocratic, that is to say it feels that it should rule the roost not because of what it is, but because of who it is. This attitude comes down to us from the middle ages when the lord of the manor ruled everyone in the manor.

OK, leave that discussion aside for a minute and consider the another class of healers which grew up alongside traditional medicine, namely folk healers. These were people of the lower classes who served people of the lower classes. Before there was the middle class, with which we are so familiar today, there were only two classes and these two classes did not contact each other except as lord and servant. When people of the lower class became ill, they went to their own healers and here also there was a tradition of healing and a body of knowledge which was shared among the masters and from master to apprentice. For example, herbalism, the water cure (hydrotherapy), and naturopathy are bodies of knowledge which developed slowly over 2,000 years of history.

So, now we have a picture of two types of healers: (1) traditional doctors derived from the upper class, and (2) folk healers derived from the lower class. Both of these approaches enjoyed their successes and suffered their failures. Lest anyone be arrogant about his identification with either approach, we only need to recall that blood letting was actually a mainstream practice among our intellectual progenitors of the 18th century. In fact, it is almost certain that blood letting killed George Washington in 1899 and surely led to the deaths of hundreds of thousands of others. This was the "scientific, evidence-based medicine" of its day, terms that are proudly tossed around today by doctors who are not scientists in any way, shape or fashion but who nevertheless fancy themselves scientific. They are as scientific as the 500th horse in the stampede leading to the cliff. In our day, many people recognize such things as coronary bypass surgery (which has been proven not to prolong life over non-surgical treatments) as well as chemotherapy and radiation therapy for cancer to be the blood letting of our age. Doctors who step back from some of the radical, clearly dangerous approaches of the present day and advocate other methods of treatment which, while not mainstream (not everyone is doing them) nevertheless have great benefit with minimal risk - these people are termed "alternative doctors." Arrogant advocates of the herding instinct in medicine refer to these doctors as quacks and say they practice "unproven medical procedures." However, The U.S. Office of Technology reports that only 10-20% of all medical procedures are scientifically proven. This website is largely a product of this throwback philosophy which firmly believes in the advice of the historical "father of medicine" Hippocrates who told us that when treating a patient: "First, do no harm."

When one goes searching for an alternative doctor, it is almost always because "mainstream medicine" has failed, usually several times. When this happens, the choices are two: (1) give up hope or (2) find a doctor who thinks outside the herding instinct of mainstream medicine. No medical approach is 100% successful, but considering the nature of cases which come to the office of an alternative doctor, the rate of success is eye-opening nonetheless.

The information in this article is not meant to be medical advice.�Treatment for a medical condition should come at the recommendation of your personal physician.

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