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Rethinking Healthcare—Ayurveda in Contemporary Society


Indian history has contributed massively towards the culture that we associate with the subcontinent today. Ayurveda belongs in this historical hall of fame, suddenly relevant again at a time when the strength of our medical infrastructure is under question. Ayurveda is an alternative medicine system that places great significance in generating a balance in one’s lifestyle through the right diet and thinking processes. The ultimate objective is to maintain harmony between the body, mind, and the environment.

A joint report published by the prestigious Confederation of Indian Industry and PricewaterhouseCoopers claimed that 77 per cent of Indian households use Ayurvedic products. Although it has always been the preferred form of medicine in most rural areas, where conventional Western medicine has not yet been able to break past the lack of accessibility or the apprehension, it is witnessing a strong resurgence in the urban setup. The perspective is slowly changing, with many people turning to it in conjunction with modern medicine.

A Significant Notification

On 20th November 2020, the Central Council of Indian Medicine (CCIM) released a notification in The Gazette of India. It outlines the changes in regulations made under the Indian Medicine Central Council Act, 1970. Under the amended rules, post-graduate Ayurvedic practitioners can receive formal training for certain surgical procedures. It details 58 surgeries, including tooth extraction and tumour excision, which can now be taught to post-graduate students. Additionally, students would be trained in two surgery streams—shalya tantra (general surgery) and shalakya tantra (disease of the eye, ear, nose, throat, head, and oro-dentistry).

The move invited colossal flak from the Indian Medical Association (IMA). Modern medicine doctors staged protests at multiple thousand locations and decided to halt nonessential elective procedures on 8th December 2020 in objection. They argued that while they are not opposed to the idea of Ayurveda, the notification could mislead people into believing that an Ayurveda doctor has the same set of skills as a modern medicine practitioner. It would be perceived as an “encroachment into the jurisdiction and competencies of modern medicine.”

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Doctors held protests against the CCIM notification in solidarity with the IMA. [Image credits: Press Trust of India]

The IMA moved the Supreme Court against this controversial act. It opposed the government’s plans to integrate the Ayurveda, Yoga and Naturopathy, Unani, Siddha, and Homoeopathy (AYUSH) systems along with modern medicine in the future. They believe this cocktail of different systems (termed mixopathy) would produce hybrid doctors not competent in any field. There has been no progress with the court case so far.

The Other Side of the Coin

Ayurveda practitioners argue that students of both Ayurveda and modern medicine are required to pass NEET. Hence, neither should be perceived as superior to the other. Their stance is that since both systems’ practice is initiated in colleges using the same exam, it should not matter if the syllabus is expanded to get both courses on par. Additionally, the procedures for multiple surgeries are very similar to those employed in modern medicine. Thus, this would only be a step further in legitimising approaches that have already existed for ages.

The primary reason for releasing the notification has been to reduce the stress on the existing medical infrastructure and allow specialist allopathic doctors to divert their resources and time towards more pressing matters. Moreover, it would provide a support system to those living in rural areas who may not have access to or may not be comfortable with the idea of surgery using Western medicine. It would be the first step to eliminating the imbalance in medical facilities in different regions.

India running out of hospital beds amid record coronavirus cases | Coronavirus pandemic News | Al Jazeera

The move could lessen the strain on medical infrastructure in India, making healthcare more accessible. [Image Credits: Danish Siddiqui/Reuters]

There have been multiple success stories where Ayurveda could give more effective results than an allopathic treatment course. An example is when a woman was diagnosed with progressive multiple sclerosis, leaving her in chronic pain and unable to walk. She decided to try Ayurveda as a last resort despite the preconceived notion that it was a fraudulent technique. Her treatment consisted of herbal massages and other therapies to remove inbuilt toxins. She started noticing improvements right from the second session. Within nine days, she regained her ability to walk without any additional support. She became disease-free with time and is now no longer reliant on any painkillers or other medication.

There have been other cases where people overcame infertility and could bear healthy children by following Ayurvedic procedures. A couple from New Delhi who had struggled with infertility for over 11 years turned to IVF, which delivered unsuccessful results. Not having enough funds to carry out expensive methods, they tried Ayurvedic treatments, and are now happy parents.

Ayurveda is also becoming increasingly popular internationally, with more people turning to it as a holistic alternative to allopathic medicine. The global Ayurveda market, worth 3.4 billion dollars as of 2015, is expected to grow to 9.7 billion dollars by 2022. At the forefront of this boom is the desire to get back to tradition and move away from the chemicals used in most conventional treatments. This vacuum has been filled by several Ayurvedic spas and resorts cropping up over the past few years.

The Final Diagnosis

The benefits of Ayurveda are still largely disputed. Apart from the herbs used, some concoctions include mercury and other heavy metals, which have adverse effects on health in the long run. Modern practitioners argue that Ayurveda does not have as robust a code of conduct as conventional medicine. They do not benefit from the publication of regular journals, which allows for continuous improvement in a constantly changing field. Additionally, some Ayurvedic surgeries require the use of anaesthesiaa common practice in modern medicine. Although a move welcomed by some as a step towards co-operation among different fields, several allopathic doctors were against this move. They saw it as a way of promoting mixopathy, which would ultimately put the patients at risk.

Despite having any scientific proof that Ayurveda works, it is still widely prevalent and continues to have a stronghold even in metropolitan areas. While Ayurveda has not been studied extensively, it is not entirely false to claim it can positively affect one’s well being. There are cases where the use of Ayurvedic practices has helped improve mental and physical health. However, the potential for harm is too great to consult only Ayurvedic practitioners.

The need for regulatory practices in Ayurveda is more necessary now than ever. Regulating it is not an easy task, with there being no single solution, and each practitioner has their unique interpretation for any ailment. CCIM—a statutory body under Ministry of AYUSH—has been overseeing the rules and regulations governing Indian medicine since 1976. The policies also differ on a state-wide basis. For example, an Ayurveda practitioner can prescribe allopathic drugs in Maharashtra, but the same is illegal in Kerala.

The dangers of false advertising and unapproved medicines and procedures are highlighted in an age where sensationalism sells. The Coronil controversy last year was witness to this. Patanjali’s Coronil was a widely popular product offering baseless, unscientific claims of curing COVID-19. The Ministry of AYUSH had to intervene and restrict its sale. It was later allowed to be sold, but only by marketing it as an immunity booster, not a cure.

The past year saw people trying out alternative and pseudo-scientific methods of increasing immunity. People started searching for herbal medicines and unconventional forms of boosting immunity due to the panic created during the COVID-19 pandemic. People were reported intaking colloidal silver as a way to “stop” the virus. Fuelled by scepticism in modern medicine and a desire to do what it takes to protect themselves, the pandemic saw a surge in people trying out alternative medicine methods. It has become pragmatically impossible to draw exact boundaries between the two systems. Though modern medicine has changed our societies for the better and will continue doing so for a long time to come, finding a single medicine system that fits all remains a futile exercise.

Featured Image Credits: Getty Images

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