Western Medicine

Understanding Western Medicine

What is western medicine?

Western medicine is the term that is used for the diagnoses and treatments of diseases and other ailments in the west from the time of the ancient Greeks. In some cases, people simply refer to it as 'medicine'. However, the term western medicine is also used in order to distinguish it from alternative healing methods and TCM traditional Chinese medicine. As well as developing treatments and cures, western forms of medicine are also applied in preventative fields and public health programmes. Today, the practice is both highly specialised and multi-disciplinary taking in anything from physiotherapy to keyhole surgery and psychiatry to chemotherapy.

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 Who invented western medicine?

To answer the question of who might have invented medicine in the West, you would have to say that no single individual did. In this regard, it is rather like scientific enquiry because no single person invented science, either. Based on observable results, just like the so-called natural sciences, the discipline of medicine in the West is said to have sprung from the practices of an early Greek physician, known as Hippocrates of Kos. He insisted that medicine was a distinct field of study from other academic pursuits, such as philosophy. His ideas caught on, and most physicians around the world still take the so-called Hippocratic oath when they qualify, which means they promise to act in a professional manner at all times.

What can western medicine learn from traditional healing?

Proponents of western forms of medicine have often overlooked traditional healing methods over the centuries. However, it is fair to say that some in the profession, at least, are now more engaged with so-called alternative medicine. Some blend western approaches with herbalism in the search for new medications, for example, something which would have been considered as witchcraft in the past. Indeed, some aspects of traditional Chinese medicine (TCM), such as acupuncture, are also increasingly being used within mainstream healthcare provision in the West. Reflexology is not considered to be a part of western forms of medicine, either, but it is being increasingly accepted in the West, as is meditation. Some western doctors even prescribe meditation courses to help people with certain mental health disorders, such as anxiety disorder, for example.

Is western medicine the best form of healthcare?

The question of whether medicine derived from western traditions is best can only be answered subjectively. To some, the observable results of Hippocratic medicine mean that it cannot be bettered. Nevertheless, results from other traditions, even if they cannot always be fully explained in a scientific manner, will sometimes afford hope to patients where western medicinal practices have no therapeutic benefits to offer. Certainly, it is fair to say that western forms of medicine are widely regarded as a strong form of healthcare, even in places where traditional methods are still preferred. Most people will turn to their doctor first if they have an ailment and only seek alternatives if their treatment does not seem to be effective. In this sense, it is better to say that it is more trusted rather than simply being better than alternative therapies.

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Why is western medicine more effective?

To begin answering why medicine in the West is often more effective than alternatives, you'd have to start by noting that huge resources go into the kind of research that is required to make it as effective as it is. Each year, billions are spent on developing drugs, non-invasive scanning equipment and surgical techniques, for example. That said, western forms of treating people are not always as effective as other approaches and alternative medicine still has a place for many people who use it. Therefore, it would be a mistake to think that the situation is down to levels of investment alone. After all, there have been significant public health problems caused in some western countries in the past due to certain treatments which have turned out to have unwanted side effects. In addition, western diets are known to cause problems with issues like obesity, gut health and heart disease among others.

Why is it called western medicine?

For some, the idea that medicine is western is a misnomer. Many doctors and other healthcare professionals see medicine as a science that does not conform to any cultural barriers and they would prefer to simply say that medicine is medicine and leave it at that. Nevertheless, the term 'western' tends to be applied to mainstream forms of healthcare because it was developed so much in the Renaissance and Enlightenment eras in Europe. This is not to say that Arabian, Chinese and other scholars did not share their knowledge with Westerners because they did. However, western forms of medicine raced ahead with new techniques and technologies in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. To distinguish them from Eastern and traditional medicinal practices, the term 'western' began to be used despite the fact that by this time it was being practised by people all around the world. Most countries healthcare systems are based on it today.

What is western medicine based on?

The question of what western forms of medicine are based on goes back to the central issue that Hippocrates raised back in the fifth century BCE. He, like other natural philosophers of the time, thought that it was by making observations and noting them that the nature of the world could be understood. This is a fundamental scientific principle. What Hippocrates did was to apply this principle to the study of the human body – something we'd now see as a part of biology. Later, as scientific enquiry became more sophisticated, peer review of empirical studies became the method by which scientists could test, repeat and critique each other's work. Medical science in the West still uses the same system, just as scientists in chemistry, astrophysics or botany would do. As such, western forms of medicine are based on science which, itself, is based on empirical enquiry.

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What are some examples of western medicine?

These days, doctors have to specialise because western forms of medicine have become so diverse that knowledge in the various niches has to be studied carefullyt. That said, there is one big divide in the West with respect to medicine. This is basically surgery and everything else. Surgery relies on a precise understanding of anatomy, of course, and requires a tremendous amount of physical dexterity. The other half of medicine is dominated by drug therapies. Pharmaceutical companies are constantly developing drugs that can help people to overcome a wide range of ailments. Nevertheless, there are other types of therapy, such as the talking therapies which are primarily aimed at helping with mental health problems. In addition, there is physiotherapy which aims to help injured limbs recover. Some medical practitioners specialise in the study of pathogens while others are concerned with nutrition and gut health.

Where is western medicine practised?

As previously mentioned, western medicine is practised all over the world nowadays. Even in places where holistic medicine has been the traditional way of treating people, western practices with healthcare are now the norm. Only in the most remote parts of the world are witchdoctors and shamen used to help people deal with their ailments. In China, which has a very different tradition with medicine, largely because TCM is still practised there, western forms of medicine are commonplace. There are Chinese surgeons, anaesthetists, oncologists, general practitioners and paramedics who observe all of the rules of western forms of medicine but who may also see no issue with undergoing a reflexology session, for example, or taking a prescription from a TCM doctor.

What is traditional western medicine?

Unlike TCM, which developed in the Far East, traditional forms of medicine in the West have their own heritage. Many people in the Middle Ages and early modern period had very little access to anything like healthcare services. Trained physicians were only there to serve the aristocracy and the rich. Therefore, ordinary people had to rely on folk knowledge to help deal with ailments and injuries. For many Europeans at the time, this would mean herbalism whereby certain plants would be consumed in different combinations to treat a multitude of conditions. Anything from chronic pain to a laceration was thought to be treatable with the right plants. Although men practised traditional medicine, it was often women, sometimes called cunning women, who were most frequently turned to. Cunning women were also often associated with practising witchcraft by societies that both used such women to help them and apparently persecuted them in equal measure.

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What does western medicine focus on?

The question of what western medicine focuses on can be answered in a single word: conditions. Unlike many alternative medicine practices and certainly in the case of holistic medicine, the whole body and mind are not treated as a single entity. Instead, in western traditions, ailments, disorders and other conditions are identified, usually by observing various symptoms. This is called diagnosis. Once this has been established, medical professionals will then try to establish the future pathway the condition might take. This is called prognosis. What western medical practitioners basically do is try to find therapies that improve the prognosis so that the patient feels better or, at least less irritated by their symptoms. Ideally, the treatment will cure the condition entirely.

What are some problems with western medicine?

To answer what problems are associated with western forms of medicine, you would first have to say how successful it is in many regards. That said, no single approach to something as diverse as healthcare can be a total success. For some, it is the failure to treat people in the round that is the biggest issue. Unlike holistic medicine, western approaches focus on ailments and cures rather than preventative measures. Equally, some people criticise western approaches for poor outcomes with public healthcare policies even though they might be better at dealing with individuals and their conditions. In many western healthcare systems, mental health disorders do not receive funding for treatments on the same level as physical ailments. Again, for some, this is a poor outcome. Some people also think there is an over-reliance on drug therapies and not enough emphasis on alternative medicine.

What is the difference between western medicine and eastern medicine?

In the East, medicine tends to follow a more holistic approach. Although it is not universal in eastern philosophies, the idea of qi – or life force – pervades much thinking in southern and eastern Asia. As such, treating the body such that qi can flow through it with fewer blockages and interruptions is behind much of the thinking in pursuits like acupuncture, reflexology and TCM, for instance. This is in stark contrast to western traditions in which observations are made about discrete datasets. A western doctor when asked to treat a skin complaint will very often focus on the patient's skin rather than taking into account every aspect of their diet and lifestyle, for example, even though these factors may be relevant. Therefore, although both models seek favourable outcomes for patients, they are very different from a philosophical point of view.

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Western medicine in summary

To summarise western medicine, it is important to note that what western healthcare systems try to do is to create an integrated system that helps patients to receive the most favourable and tailored outcomes possible. Emphatically, this is not just down to the work of doctors – although they are incredibly important, of course – but nurses, ancillaries, pharmacists, physiotherapists and paramedics, too. The idea in the West is that medicine is delivered to patients in the most appropriate way for their circumstances. This might factor in their age as well as their ailments, for example. In this regard, western medicine sets the standard and this is why it is also often referred to as orthodox medicine.

For all of the developments and favourable outcomes in western forms of medicine, there are limits as to what it can do. There are still many incurable diseases that people can suffer from, for example. In addition, western medicine tends to be focussed primarily on diagnosing and treating ailments after they have occurred rather than dealing with prevention. In fairness, many western countries have identified this issue and are trying to address it with public healthcare campaigns, usually based on diet and exercise. In this regard, western medical methods are very different from traditional medicine and the sort of healthcare practices that have developed in non-Western cultures, such as India and China, for example. These days, more and more western scientific research is being conducted into things like TCM to see whether the two can be combined in some way to optimise patient outcomes. Indeed, so-called alternative medicine is being viewed with less scepticism in the West nowadays, even among the medical profession.

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