Western vs. Eastern Approaches

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A light philosophical framework of Western vs Eastern treatments

This post is the first in a series aimed at highlighting the similarities and differences between the approach to medicine we are used to in Western civilization versus the Eastern medical approach as I understand each of them. Present-day America is a pluralistic society in which all ideas are able to be expressed and debated in the public arena. Politics, religion, philosophy are concepts that impact our lives on a daily basis whether we acknowledge it or not. Medicine, as a philosophical and practical discipline, should begin to be scrutinized in the same capacity as religion and politics in our society. Unlike the divisive nature of many debates in the religious and political arenas, the aim of this series is to begin a conversation of unifying the practical approach to medicine for the betterment of society as a whole.

I will paint with broad strokes in this first post, setting a philosophical framework to be further analyzed throughout the series. 

As Chris Kresser states in his book, “Unconventional Medicine” the Western medical system has many times been a miraculous treatment approach for acute and infectious disease from the mid to late 19th century until present day. Infectious diseases that arose from the transformation of a largely agrarian societal structure into an industrialized society were successfully overcome by the “one disease, one treatment” approach to medicine. Polio and many other childhood infectious diseases are merely a series of injections away from eradication. Now we are faced with the logistical challenge of delivering the treatment to the patient hosting the disease.

This approach, however, does not work as effectively for the challenges that face our medical system today. Chronic disease now accounts for 70% of the mortality rate in America(1). 

Chronic disease has no simple solution because there is often no singular causative factor as in the case of poliovirus, measles virus, and other pathogenic organisms. No, chronic disease is always a combination of nature and nurture. Hereditary factors and environmental factors both play major roles in the spread of chronic illnesses. This brings me to the point of this article and a distinction that must be made.

The Western medical approach is disease-focused. The disease must be attacked, and the battle will be won when the disease is eradicated. Hereditary factors play a less important role other than the determination of the likelihood of disease contraction. It does not matter which patient walks through the door as much as what disease the patient is playing host to. “One disease, one treatment” This approach is not wrong, as stated previously, this approach nearly eradicated many diseases that plagued the human race for centuries. But this approach is no longer sufficient for the eradication of all suffering. 

The Eastern medical approach, on the other hand, is uniquely designed to treat the patient as a continual part of the environment within which they reside. The person must be studied, as many Asian medical practitioners have stated, only addressing the pathogen and the prescription is only identifying two sides of the pyramid. These are the “knowns” in any treatment plan. The unknown, the patient, must also be known to the practitioner before one can hope for an effective treatment. So the patient is an integral part of the entire treatment approach in Traditional East Asian Medicine. Diseases progress differently in different individuals so the treatment must be adjusted to the patient based on the progression observed. 

How can we combine these two approaches in order to bring greater unity to the medical field? I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments section!

1. Kresser, Chris; Unconventional Medicine 2017

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