Western vs Alternative Medicine – The Experts Decide

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5 min read

There is no one size fits all when it comes to medical treatment, but how do you sort the fact from the fiction when seeking the best path for your health? 

Use of complementary medicine is on the rise in Australia, with expenditure in the sector worth $3.5 billion. Two out of three Australians seek alternative treatments, especially women.

At the other end of the spectrum, The Royal Australian College of General Practitioners reports high levels of patient satisfaction with the care they have received from their GP. 

We spoke to Perth-based GP Dr Lucy Caratti, and Melbourne-based Chinese Medicine practitioner Amy O’Brien about what’s going on in the health system, and why women are seeking answers outside the Western system. 

Who is seeking out alternative treatments and why?

Amy said women (and her clients are mostly women), tend to come to her in their late 20s to late 30s. 

“I think that’s around the time we stop accepting that things have to be a certain way and consciously decide to take our health into our own hands,” she said.

“We don’t want to put up with period pain any more. The fatigue is getting the way of our work etc. So we do something about it.”

“Often when women come in in their late 30s they say at some point ‘gosh, where were you when I was 20?!’ because they feel like they have battled through an extra decade of period pain or anxiety or insomnia that they didn’t have to. But that’s the role for us now – educating women to explore their options whenever things arise.”

Tighter regulation around the industry as well a broader understanding of what acupuncture, Chinese medicine and herbs can offer, mean more people are open to the idea of pursuing alternative therapies.

“More high quality research is proving the validity of different approaches,” she said. “I think women are becoming empowered and educated around their health and any health battles they may be facing, and are digging around to find what works for them.

“We are awake now to the fact that debilitating period pain is not normal. That intense morning sickness shouldn’t just be ‘battled through’ or ‘sucked up’. And we are smart enough and savvy enough to do something about it.”

Amy’s clients were seeking advice for a variety of complaints, ranging from mental health concerns, gynaecological and fertility-related issues, digestive health, immune support, and anything else that didn’t fit into a box or where clients had hit a wall with traditional treatments. Amy said collaborating with Western-trained doctors was “where patient outcomes really soar”.

alternative medicine treatment for women chinese medicine

Collaborative, not competitive, care

“There are a million different ways we can come together for the benefit of the patient. We just have to have open communication and a respect for things we might not necessarily understand,” she said. “And because it’s not a one-or-the-other situation. We can draw from both Eastern and Western bodies of knowledge to create the best outcomes.”

We can draw from both Eastern and Western bodies of knowledge to create the best outcomes.

Dr Amy O’Brien

Amy said it was a “common misconception and a huge mistake” that Chinese medicine was the only treatment she would use. 

“We are so much more capable and nuanced than this,” she said.

“If my kid breaks their arm, I’m going to the hospital, not to the herb cupboard! But if I’ve got a common cold, I’ll use my tools and strategies.”

That’s a sentiment echoed by Dr Caratti. 

“We need to stop thinking about Western versus alternative medicine and instead look at what the treatment is offering and how it works and most importantly, how they can complement each other,” she said. 

We need to stop thinking about Western versus alternative medicine and instead look at what the treatment is offering and how it works and most importantly, how they can complement each other.

Dr Lucy Caratti

“I believe a lot of our complaints and ailments come from our modern lifestyle and we can all make lifestyle adjustments to help our overall health,” Dr Caratti said. “However, when someone gets pneumonia, they need antibiotics.  When someone gets so depressed that they can’t remember a ‘normal’ functioning brain, antidepressants are often needed in order to have the mental clarity to engage in the psychotherapy.”  

Gone are the days, she said, where a doctor would write out a script and the patient would follow it without asking questions. “Patients are becoming much more involved with their healthcare and the decisions made about their treatments,” she said. “This is partly due to increased knowledge (cue Doctor Google) and partly due to the understanding that a patient will have greater adherence to treatment when they are involved in the decision process.”

Dr Caratti – who has two small children – said she had become more interested in expanding her knowledge as she got older. 

“GPs see a large range of diseases, however sometimes we are seeing someone for a symptom rather than a condition,” she said. “Tiredness, headaches, stomach aches, constipation.  In conventional medicine, you would examine the patient, order some blood tests or imaging, rule out serious causes for the symptoms, and if all was normal, reassure the patient.  ‘You are just a mum and mums get tired.’ ‘You are just prone to constipation. That is how your gut works’.  But this doesn’t stop the patient from feeling the way they are feeling.”  

She said having extra training helped her to rule out serious causes, then start on a treatment plan to help the patient both function and feel better. 

Dr Caratti said the majority of her clients were also seeking holistic or alternative therapies, and she was supportive and encouraging of these paths as long as they were not doing any harm or replacing vital treatment. She had also sought treatment from alternative therapies. 

“I think people are more interested in ‘treating’ conditions rather than the bandaid approach of medication,” she said. “I also think that, like any profession, there are people that practice these therapies well and people that don’t.  So if choosing to explore options, patients need to do their research into the practitioner.” 

Dr Caratti advised booking a double appointment when dealing with larger or multiple complaints; to ensure the GP you are seeing has an interest in the area you are discussing (eg women’s health, fertility, gut issues, etc.) and if you are not happy with the outcome and you find the symptoms are impacting on your quality of life, to not be afraid to seek a specialist opinion.

Check out Dr Lucy’s insider tips about making the most of your next doctor’s appointment.

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