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Comparing Alternative and Conventional Health Care

I’ve written quite a bit on this blog about medical care and alternative care individually, but I haven’t yet spent any time comparing the two. In this post, I’d like to roll out my personal opinions about the primary differences I see between them and what their strengths and weaknesses are.

Female doctor talking to female patient in doctor's office.

The first thing you need to know is that I don’t see medical science as being all good or all bad. I admire the many advances science has made to provide medical innovations. Surgeries, transplants, vaccines, medications, contraceptives, and more have revolutionized the health of people around the world. For that, I respect medical science for what it does.

On the other hand, there is a great deal of evidence that indicates that medical science does not always operate ethically or morally. There is documented evidence that in the past medical professionals conducted testing with shady ethical principles, experimented on humans (sometimes without their permission), denied some populations life-saving medical care due to deep-seated bigotry, and used therapies that clearly did more harm than good. There has been a ton of legislation enacted all over the world to curb these practices.

Even though we’ve curbed large-scale medical malpractice, there are still medical people with personal opinions that can hurt others. Medical practitioners have their own inherent biases that can and do harm people, particularly women and minorities (read more here). There are also subtle systemic problems that deny large groups of people good medical care on a daily basis. Many doctors are more aware now that mental/emotional factors such as stress can affect physical symptoms. A problem arises, however, when doctors assume that all female problems are the result of “stress” and pass them off. They overgeneralize and keep women from getting the same care as men. My biggest issue with medical professionals is that they are unable and unwilling to admit their own limitations and biases which seriously limits change and keeps people from getting the help they need. There are some serious issues here to address.

Having said all that, I do think there are times when going to see a medical professional is exactly the right thing to do. They are excellent at dealing with acute issues. Heart attacks, serious allergic reactions, accidents, injuries, infections, etc. often require immediate medical help. Go to the hospital when your issues are serious and life-threatening. Unfortunately, I do have to add that you must insist on getting help when you know something is really wrong because research shows that some groups of people are less likely to be taken seriously at first. Women can often be categorized as “hysterical” and their symptoms dismissed. People of color can be stereotyped as making up symptoms because they want drugs. Some serious issues can be harder to diagnose than others (especially when symptoms are unusual). Overworked medical professionals can and do make mistakes. All this is to say, if you know something is seriously wrong, don’t let anyone dismiss you and send you home.

For more minor issues, going to your primary care doctor is more accessible but also fraught with uncertainty. Primary care physicians can be subject to bias as well, even if they have known you your whole life. Many in the medical profession still don’t believe in things such as endometriosis (excessively painful periods) or fibromyalgia (chronic soft tissue pain) and therefore would never suggest you might have one of those conditions (part of this is due to the bias against women’s pain). Many professionals also assume that you want a "quick fix" for your issue and are happy to walk out with medication to make you feel better. Some meds are great for this type of thing. If you have a bad case of poison ivy, then steroids work wonders. If you have strep throat, then antibiotics can take care of it quickly. Other problems get meds that simply hide the issue, not heal it. Pain meds can cover a lot of chronic joint pain or menstrual pain without actually doing anything to support healing long-term. There is rarely a “cure,” but you can often get immediate relief to keep you going.

Doctor examining CT scan on tablet.

Most medical problems are diagnosed by a professional who does not know you or have access to your knowledge of your body. This person uses a collection of symptoms and tests to decide what is “wrong” with you and then prescribes a treatment to “fix” it. There are a lot of ways this model can break down. Perhaps you are exhibiting abnormal symptoms that don’t fit any known medical problem. Perhaps there is not a test for your condition, or the test being used is unreliable. Perhaps your problem is not widely known so there isn’t a clinical collection of symptoms to compare. Perhaps you are having a problem that has symptoms very similar to another problem, so you get misdiagnosed. Maybe your doctor doesn't believe anything is wrong and therefore doesn't try very hard to figure out what is going on. If medical doctors can’t figure out what is wrong with you, then they can’t “fix” it. It’s a process that puts the medical doctor in the position of all-knowing mechanic who should be able to make everything feel better.

I hate to say it, but the problem can be even bigger than that. Perhaps what medical science thinks they know about a particular set of symptoms is actually completely wrong. Maybe their markers don’t actually say what they think they say, so what they do to try and fix the problem actually doesn’t work at all. Or maybe they know what is wrong, but their treatment plans aren’t effective. There are hundreds of years of history that show us this happens as often as it doesn’t. Right now, there are huge debates in the medical and alternative care communities regarding Lyme disease, how it is diagnosed, and how it is treated for the very reason that we still aren’t sure that what we think causes Lyme is actually the root problem.

All these possibilities can keep you from getting the help you need. Many people with non-typical symptoms can spend years trying to get their medical problem diagnosed. Those who do get diagnosed are often prescribed meds or surgeries that cover up or minimize the symptoms enough to feel reasonably well. Your test numbers might look better or your health markers go up, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that you feel any better or that your body is healing. Standard medical practice is based primarily on measuring objective factors to determine how well you are, even if your subjective factors are telling you something different. Now, I’m all for objective science and testing, but in the end, the goal is for a person to feel better then that’s the most important marker to take notice of.

And this gets me to what I think is the most important difference between standard medical care and alternative therapies (including energy work). In medical care, the professional is the “expert” and interprets objective and testable factors to determine what is wrong with you and how to “fix” it (which usually means manage the symptoms). All the knowing about what is wrong is external and all the medical treatment is done to you. It’s a format in which the professional has the power and the knowledge (and sometimes the biases) and the person actually experiencing the problem just gets pushed around.

Female health care professional sitting at desk listening carefully to female patient.

On the other hand, most (not all) alternative care is centered more on the patient. If you go to an alternative care practitioner to say that something is wrong in your body, it is much more likely you will be believed. That is because alternative care practitioners generally assume that everyone has intuition about what is going on in their own bodies. If you are having symptoms, then your body is trying to tell you something. It is very unlikely they will dismiss you and send you home. Alternative health practitioners, though, are less about diagnosing and naming the issue than medical professionals. This is because they know that there can be many reasons why a particular group of symptoms show up. They also know that the name of what is going on is less important than supporting the body’s healing process.

Yes, alternative health care practitioners are more interested in helping the body heal than they are in diagnosing or managing symptoms. They actually believe that the body can heal itself and doesn’t need an outside expert to tell it what to do. When all systems are operating normally, the body knows how to repair itself whether or not you know what is wrong.

Notice that I’m not saying the alternative health care providers HEALS you. No, they are experts who can support your healing journey but they cannot force your body to do anything. They can suggest supplements, life changes, therapies, and more, but your body actually does the healing work. Alternative practitioners are also more aware of how the body, mind, beliefs, and emotions interact to create health problems and can suggest a wider range of supportive practices. I use the word “suggest” intentionally. Alternative practitioners do not diagnose and cannot prescribe anything. It generally is not part of their license for practice. It is also generally against their beliefs about who is in charge of healing. Most of them place the power for healing in the hands of the patient. It is up to you to decide what you need and choose a course of action. Energy workers and alternative care providers are supporters and guides, but not fixers.

Person sitting in unfocused background meditating with herbal tea in glass tea pot in foreground.

Since the alternative health care world supports your body as it heals itself, the reality is that results are often a bit slower than you would get from a medical doctor. Part of the reason is real healing can take time. Yes, sometimes you might go to a Reiki practitioner and leave feeling better immediately. I have found, however, that the improvements are subtle and the true healing takes longer. There are a number of reasons for this. The most basic reason is that your body is complicated. Every organ, muscle, system, gland, etc. talks to every other one all the time. If anything is off, it can cause a cascade of symptoms over time. Factor in mental, emotional, and physical problems overlapping and interacting with each other and you quickly get a sense of how complicated your system is. Most chronic or significant dysfunctions that send you to the doctor are probably rooted in energy dysfunctions years in the making. Untangling all those connections takes time, rest, and care. (Read more here.)

So alternative care usually takes longer, which can be a problem if you are in pain or experiencing extreme symptoms. You might go to a doctor for joint pain and they would give you a pill to make it feel better within a few hours. There is no guarantee, however, that whatever is causing the pain is actually healing or that it won’t come back again. On the other hand, an alternative care practitioner would take the longer view of helping the body heal permanently so that the joint pain doesn’t come back. This is more than just popping a pill and feeling better within a day. That is why, depending on the issue, sometimes a good strategy is to get medical help for quick relief while also working with an alternative practitioner to support long-term healing. I don’t believe that you should necessarily work solely with one or the other type of care. Knowing the strengths and weaknesses of both will help you feel better in the short run while also helping you actually heal in the long run.

In the end, both medical and alternative care have valuable things to offer us as we find solutions to our problems. There are many routes to take to get relief and find healing. Knowing the strengths and weaknesses of each will help you make better decisions. My basic rule of thumb is to go get medical care for acute, life-threatening issues. Stick with alternative care for chronic or “undiagnosable” problems.

When I started having digestive and menstrual trouble in my mid-20s I started with medical doctors. After they checked for major health issues (I didn’t have any brain tumors or wildly concerning blood tests) it was clear that they didn’t have much else to offer. I then turned to alternative care for long-term answers. Since then, I’ve been learning and healing by trusting my body to tell me what it needs to resolve its symptoms. I don’t have diagnoses for all the things that my body has healed over the years, but it doesn’t matter as long as I am feeling better. Because in the end, I just want to feel well enough to do the things I love and enjoy my life. I refuse to accept that I have to live with something forever just because some doctor doesn’t believe that anything is wrong with me.

I’ve found my own path to healing and I believe you can too. You get help from medical practitioners, alternative practitioners, or both. In the end, you need to trust your intuition to guide you toward the people who will help you feel better.

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