Recently, fellow student and long-time friend of mine, Sunita Singh, wrote a beautiful blog post on the need for communication between the medical establishment and those utilizing traditional recipes as a cure for ailments. As with most of her work, the blog was stunning and I highly recommend you read it before continuing with my post. Reading Sunita’s post, I find myself wondering to what extent is respecting one’s own cultural tradition a priority in the context of medical care. In particular, I am drawn to one claim she makes: “Medical techniques differ around the world based on the cultures they originate from. No technique is superior to another.” (Integrating Medical Cultures, Singh) Understand, of course, that I would never condone discrimination, bigotry, or hostility towards a patient for having cultural beliefs different from my own. Such actions are abhorrent and should be punished accordingly. However, not all traditional medicine was created equally and I feel it is important to distinguish the possible beneficial from the deadly.
There is certainly a precedent for limiting cultural practices due to medical or human rights concerns. Some obvious examples include female genital mutilation, child marriage, and infanticide. These practices are forbidden by legislation but what of actions deemed more benign, like herbal remedies and faith-based healing. Many such practices have existed for thousands of years and do have value both as a placebo and due to scientific benefit, the chewing of Willow Tree leaves to acquire acetylsalicylic acid being a prime example. However, some are based on superstition, with the use of “sun-smacking” in Tony Morrison’s Home serving as a good example. As a reminder, sun-smacking involves exposing an afflicted region, in this case Cee’s genitals, to the sun as a “…permanent cure [for her injury]. The kind beyond human power.” (Morrison, 124) This seems to suggest the women in the village attribute divine intervention to Cee’s healing. Although I respect the power of faith, having myself been raised in the Catholic tradition, I fear such a practice may do more harm than good. Healing injuries, particularly gruesome ones like Cee’s need to be protected while also being allowed to breath in order to prevent infection. While spreading her legs to the sun may allow air flow, exposing damaged tissue to UV radiation would likely do more harm than good, particularly in an era of ozone depletion.
In recent years, traditional medicine has been on the rise, fueled by distrust towards the pharmaceutical industry. Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) and other unorthodox medical practices have grown as a result. Despite legitimate grievances against big pharma, these alternative techniques have been shown to display problems of their own. Much of the data presented as evidence in support of traditional practices has proven to be poorly compiled or misleading. As The Economist reports, “America’s National Institutes of Health looked at 70 systematic reviews of TCM treatments. In 41 of them, the trials were too small or badly designed to be of use. In 29, the studies showed possible benefits but problems with sample sizes and other flaws meant the results were inconclusive.” (Why China’s traditional medicine boom is dangerous, The Economist) Other studies, including several performed in Australia, have found traditional remedies to be potentially harmful, citing “excessive levels of lead, cadmium and arsenic in 61% of preparations… levels high enough to cause acute poisoning.” (Herbal medicines can have dangerous side effects, research reveals, The Guardian)
All this paints a rather dismal picture of medicine, forcing patients to choose between a system they don’t trust and a system incapable of proving it works for them. As always, I am curious about what others think about important issues like this particularly regarding when and if physicians should intervene regarding cultural practices they view as dangerous.
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