Medicine for the 21st Century – A Brief Overview
Before I attempt to outline what I consider to be Folk Medicine for the 21st Century, it may be wise to get an impression of how it is commonly viewed. So here are some random definitions chosen from online. They are quite representative: you are welcome to explore further, but I think you will find the picture will just become muddier with more input, and I have necessarily excluded those that show a modern prejudice. As with most alternative health and medicines these wider definitions, not included here, seem to be defined from the Modern Western Medical perspective and often contain significant biases and prejudices.
I will add some reflections to these immediately afterward:
Traditional medicine (also known as indigenous or folk medicine) comprises knowledge systems that developed over generations within various societies before the era of modern medicine.
Traditional medicine as practiced by nonprofessional healers or embodied in local custom or lore, generally involving the use of natural and especially herbal remedies.
(Folk medicine is the) treatment of ailments outside clinical medicine by remedies and simple measures based on experience and knowledge handed down from generation to generation.
Folk medicine has existed for as long as human beings have existed. In an effort to cope with an environment that was often dangerous, humans, and their ancestors, began to develop ways of lessening pain and treating physical and mental problems. At first, many of the ways of treating these problems undoubtedly came through trial and error, using various plants and other methods derived from observation of how animals reacted to and treated illnesses and injuries. Over time, individuals within family and tribal groups became more skilled at helping the sick and injured, and some of these became responsible for carrying out healing ceremonies, religious rituals, and other rites designed to ensure the safety and health of their communities.
Many of the methods for treating injuries and diseases have been passed down through families for generations, and some of these have been adopted for use by the medical profession. Those treatments not commonly believed to fit within the framework of modern medical practice are commonly identified as folk medicine. Illnesses whose aetiologies are not recognized by Western medical practice are known as folk illnesses. Folk illnesses are shaped by the cultural and ethnic groups from which they emerge. They are specific to the cosmology of the cultural and ethnic group to which they belong and they have specific causative, diagnostic, preventative, and healing/curing practices that may vary significantly from how they may be viewed by modern medical practitioners.
Folk medicine exists side by side with modern medical practices, and is often at odds with it. This is primarily because it very often does not conform with what is scientifically known about the causes of illness and disease and what are thought to be the most effective medical treatments. For those who use and believe in folk medical practices, their knowledge has been acquired from generations of others that have used the treatments. Folk medicine traditions stress the importance of balance and harmony within the body. A sense that each person is connected to the earth and the cosmos is very important, as is the belief that an illness should be treated with every resource available. Herbal preparations, prayer, magic, diet, exercise, and proper social relations are all viable tools in the effort to maintain health.
Robert M Huff
The first thing to note is that Folk Medicine – I will capitalise these terms – is relatively synonymous with Traditional Medicine. This is an important point, as there is a tendency to see Modern Western Medicine (henceforth MWM) as traditional, particularly within the establishment profession. MWM is not traditional; it is distinctly modern and only a few hundred years old, at the very most.
MWM is a later development from what could be considered its traditional precursor, which was – and is – based on Greek and Roman sources. This medicine is based on figures such as Hippocrates (Greek) and Galen (Roman), and theories such as the bodily humours (bile, blood and phlegm) and the elements (earth, air, water and fire), with associations to disciplines such as astrology and alchemy; forgotten but not dead.
These former theories are still present in some alternative and complementary health disciplines, and the latter disciplines are often used in folk or traditional medicines that are still current. Their continuity into MWM is really only marginal and historical, as the scientific revolution essentially changed the face of medicine; it was a paradigm shift.
I will show my hand: I have a personal liking and preference for Anglo-Saxon Medicine as a lost tradition. It lasted many centuries – longer than MWM – and was superseded by the Mediterranean model for political, religious and cultural reasons. But there is much in Anglo-Saxon Medicine that is pertinent to and relevant for the modern era. Much of this went “underground”, so to speak, and Folk Medicine contains many of its elements. I am actively exploring this medical system and its modern relevance to healthcare.
I have chosen Huff’s more extended explanation of Folk Medicine because it outlines the field fairly well. It also defines Folk Medicine fairly clearly from, and often antagonistic to, MWM. Folk Medicine is “lay”, in that it may have practitioners, but these do not form a class distinct from the population at large; the net result of which is that anyone capable, talented and – subsequently – experienced can become a Folk Medicine practitioner. This class of people are often recognised historically and anthropologically as being shamanic, and the practitioners are sometimes therefore called shamans.
I would like to stress that Folk Medicine is NOT incompatible with MWM. I was a medical practitioner with prestigious qualifications, in active practice for well over three decades, and worked – generally – in sanctioned settings (hospitals, clinics etc.). My interests during that time, and due to the dissatisfaction with the way MWM was evolving, gravitated toward complementary methods, the traditional health systems of other cultures, and disciplines not routinely included in MWM.
This path in MWM – inevitably – led me into the more mental health arenas, although I have always retained a perspective that is inclusive of the body. I worked in psychiatry in the public health system and trained in depth or analytical psychology to become an analyst. I do not see the body-mind divide that many or most in MWM still do, even though it is now antiquated.
But why have I chosen to discuss and write about Folk Medicine?
It seems to me that most of the active dissatisfaction with MWM is adversarial and often fragmented. This makes it easy for MWM and its institutional, political, legal and corporate framework to deal with: it has very little to do with patient or public interest, in spite of the rhetoric. Collectively I call this framework the Medical Industrial Complex and talk about it in more detail elsewhere.
My interest has always been primarily in patient or client welfare, which put me at odds with the “Complex”. I became an outsider and, relatively, targeted – do I need to explain? I realised, particularly with the Internet and the vast release of information of varying standards, which the public wanted to be informed and knowledgeable. What I also realised was that they needed some organisation of this information to empower them in choice and decision-making, and therefore control over their health and its management.
So, along with my interests in traditional approaches like Anglo-Saxon Medicine, plus roaming many other varied disciplines and cultural viewpoints, I decided to pick up my ball and go home. Well, not literally, I decided to take my qualifications, medical knowledge and experience away from MWM put it into a different context. I think that Folk Medicine for the 21st Century best defines this.
What now follows is my own outline of the features that a Folk Medicine for the 21st Century:
There is a veritable mountain of it out there with the advent of the Internet. However, it is neither internally nor externally regulated. I would favour the former, but vested interests usually predominate so I am not optimistic, and this leaves the door open for external – institutional – regulation.
To assess this information into an understanding, hence knowledge and potential application, requires experience. Until you have gained your own, it is wise to get that of others or professionals who are supportive of a self-health management orientation.
Self-responsibility is paramount. It lends itself to control of your health destiny and is empowering. And, although power has negative connotations, it is absolutely essential to a healing orientation, and hence self-health management.
Blaming others, particularly the professions and institutions, is not helpful and it doesn’t work. I can make you sick.
I’m not sure whether this is the right term, but I hope you get my drift.
In addition to the knowledge that is gained from an understanding and distillation of health information, plus self-empowerment, your beliefs and values are fundamental and should be respected; both within yourself, and by others.
If your beliefs and values are not engaged in any management process by those you seek to help you, then the process will not work. If you are in doubt about these beliefs and values within yourself, then it is wise to seek counselling and maybe therapy.
4. Nutrition & Exercise
This is not the place to go into these in any detail, but they are the absolute foundation of health and wellbeing, and indispensible to any management strategy, be it a mild illness or severe disease. You may fix a problem, but you won’t heal without nutrition and exercise as part of your management strategy.
And, if a practitioner does not understand or respect this fact, then change your practitioner – if you need one.
By now you should have the picture. Any professional practitioner or therapist you engage must understand and respect the above criteria. I also believe it is important that he or she also appreciates healing as distinct from curing. Most MWM practitioners do not, unfortunately, so you may need to look around if you are using that system of healthcare.
Chiropractors have been the first port of call for many for a long time now, and naturopaths are filling the void that MWM has created with its ignorance of nutrition and health. Many choose to use MWM for emergencies only, and I can see a distinct value in this, both for you and the profession.
6. Healing Orientation
In brief: Curing is fixing a problem, irrespective of the cause, whereas healing deals with the causes and patterns that underlie the problem.
Curing is generally what MWM does. In acute medicine and trauma it can prevent your death, as with a heart attack, or the infirmity of trauma from a road accident. But once cured, you must ask yourself if there are patterns, causes and issues that have contributed to the present problem; or you may ask another’s counsel here.
When healing is explored, you inevitably move beyond the mind-body dualism of MWM and explore the emotional, social, environmental, mental and spiritual factors involved. You may not need to explore all of them, but recognising their contribution and involvement in illness patterns is paramount.
7. The Mind
Again, in brief: A Folk Medicine orientation is essentially holistic; it sees the mental orientation as primary and the body to be seen within its scope. In other words the mind includes the body, but is much more than our physical and mechanical being.
And the mind and brain are not the same thing: The brain is an organ in the body, the mind extends well beyond this limited and limiting concept that simply illustrates how mechanically MWM sees mental issues.
8. The Setting
By “setting” I mean where any management or healing is conducted, because the setting contributes significantly to healing. This is probably why I have an aversion to hospitals, particularly as they have lost their “cottage” feeling.
Consideration should be given to any practitioner setting, both for yourself, but also because it hopefully reflects the practitioners orientation. Unfortunately this may be buried beneath the corporate or institutional manner in which most clinics are set up. And hospitals often seem more for the convenience of the medical profession and the institutions in which they are embedded, rather than public welfare in this wider sense.
Ritual is embedded in modern healthcare, even if somewhat hidden and unbeknownst. Both the clinic and hospital are heavily ritualised, and the giving of prescriptions and taking of medications is a covert ritual.
Traditional Medicine, by contrast, places a strong emphasis on ritual. It not only ritualises the therapeutic process more actively, but also often engages the client or patient in management. Extend this to broader settings, often natural or otherwise significant; places like Lourdes exemplify this.
In this viewpoint, we should also consider the importance of ritual at all times in our lives and the specific value of pilgrimage in the healing process. This includes prayer, contemplation and meditation.
Community is an invaluable component of health and healing. The significance of factors such as family, social and occupational network, and the living environment all need consideration.
Unfortunately, in the modern health setting, these factors are not given enough consideration. Often, with severe illness, disease and death, the immediate community is partially or totally excluded, when it is most needed. This often reflects a difference of beliefs and values with respect to management, which is lamentable.
Ten points: I’m sure there are more. However, one factor alluded to above demands further clarification.
Modern medicine, generally, has become expensive. And costs will continue to escalate with increasing public demand that is based on fear: the fear of disease, pain, infirmity, and death. This fear itself points to a spiritual disconnection in our era that in and of itself needs addressing.
But also the medical profession is dispirited for many reasons, and do not exactly present a picture of health to the general public. There is increasing institutionalisation and invasion of practice, and not always for the purported public safety factor.
The public is voting with its feet and seeking complementary (to MWM) and alternative approaches; although it is unfortunate that these disciplines are being enfolded by the institutions themselves, which many find intrusive and not conducive to healing.
What does this all mean for you, the consumer?
At the ground level it means at least two things. Firstly, that health issues can, and should be dealt with at the primary level; be this self, family, and/or community. There is much that passes into the professional and institutional systems that need not, and much of the above is a map in achieving this. Because it is “mind over matter”, where getting the right perspective alleviates much in the way of fear and has a healing effect on the total organism, including the body.
Secondly, it means developing a home medicine cabinet, as our forefathers did. Of course, not all is in the cabinet, when we consider nutrition and exercise. But the cabinet itself, beyond the bandages and supports, can have oils, balms and routine ingestible products that help good health. Herbs, of course, should also be in the garden, or available locally at least, the fresher and more natural, the better.
A lot for you to consider? Maybe, particularly if you are in good health. But, then again, the best time to negotiate illness and disease is often when you are well!