Initiatives aimed at resuscitating traditional medicine are welcome. Regulatory gaps need to be closed

Inaugurating the WHO Global Center for Traditional Medicine (GCTM) in Jamnagar, Gujarat on Tuesday, Prime Minister Narendra Modi discussed the possibilities offered by different therapeutic approaches to the allopathic medicine system. The emphasis on “holistic care” makes traditional medicine systems particularly effective in addressing the challenges posed by modern lifestyle disorders like diabetes and obesity, he said. Conversations about medical pluralism — one of the stated goals of the new medical center — are welcome. They could pave the way for a healthcare ecosystem in which approaches to healing based on diverse knowledge systems learn from and complement each other. For this to happen, however, there must be a thorough inventory of why practitioners in different medical systems rarely agree today. It would be a question of dispelling misunderstandings but also, and this is just as important, of ironing out regulatory deficits.

According to WHO data, 65-70% of Indians use traditional therapies at some point in their lives. The turnover of the AYUSH industry (ayurveda, yoga and naturopathy, unani, siddha and homeopathy) has increased sixfold over the past eight years. Paradoxically, however, there is a lot of misinformation about these remedies and their practitioners are sometimes reviled. Part of the blame for this must be placed on a section of practitioners who make unsubstantiated claims. During the pandemic, for example, Baba Ramdev has sought to tap into mass anxiety by making wildly inaccurate claims for products made by his Ayurvedic pharmacy, Patanjali Ayurved. The yoga guru denigrated the allopathic system as a ‘farce’ and alleged that thousands of people had died due to faulty treatment by doctors practicing this system of medicine. Reports of traditional medicine practitioners prescribing allopathic drugs and steroids are also common. At the same time, the cry of these doctors, to be judged by criteria intended primarily to verify the effectiveness of allopathic medicines, deserves serious attention. The National Commission for the Indian System of Medicine Act 2020 attempts to address this predicament – the act was amended in 2021. But to achieve one of the main objectives of this act – “to ensure the availability of medical professionals quality of Indian systems of medicine and adoption of the latest research” — will take time.

A growing number of scholarly publications today document the efforts of some traditional medicine practitioners to synchronize the practices of these systems with modern research protocols. Regulators and initiatives such as the GCTM would do well to recruit such professionals.