Ancient Poppycock

I write this in the departure lounge of Delhi International Airport, awaiting my flight home after visiting various hospitals around India. This is the third time I have done this, so I feel at least slightly qualified to write about health care in this vast country. It’s a nation of huge contrasts. I don’t for a moment think that there is free and equal access to health care for all, and there is in fact a two-tier system based on public and private hospitals. I don’t intend to focus on that, but on something quite different. I am constantly lectured by the alternative medicine fraternity, to the effect that traditional medicine has passed the test of time. It has been around for thousands of years (no doubt true for some of it but by no means all), and people know what works without all this reductionist science.

On that basis, and with India having spawned some of the longest established traditional `treatments’, I should have been seeing Indian folk medicine ruling the health care roost. But I didn’t. True, there was the odd ayurvedic medicine shop, always on one of the tatty high streets, but not to anywhere near the extent that such outlets are springing up in British towns. Indeed I made a point, as a distraction from the stress of being driven through chaotic traffic, of scanning the streets for evidence of traditional medicine, but saw hardly any. The nearest to any kind of penetration into modern life was the `Indian Ayurvedic Research Centre’, which looked quite neat and set in modest grounds. Outnumbering the traditionalists by a long chalk were many specialist clinics among the shops, very candidly emblazoned with what they did. There were lots of dental and orthodontal clinics, bone and joint clinics, and my favourite was `Piles and Fistula Clinic’. They don’t mince their words.

I spent a day and a half at the St John’s Medical College and Research Centre in Bangalore, a vast teaching hospital. Regrettably it is a Christian organisation, but although there were nuns floating about there was no evidence of praying as a therapeutic practice. The hospital and college are literally crammed into a 140 acre site. There are no landscaped grounds, as all available space is stuffed with buildings. Inside, it is bursting at the seams with sick people getting proper treatment for their ills. There was no evidence of traditional medicine inside either, and it seemed to contain all the specialities of any modern hospital in the developed world. OK, it wasn’t glittering and beautifully designed. It was dark and looked shall we say functional. I am sure though that every bit of it was being pushed to the limit to deliver modern health care. I could not help contrasting this with one or two American hospitals I have visited. One cancer department had a full time holistic nurse.

Now if traditional medicine really could deliver just a fraction of the health care that I saw going on at St John’s, I should have been seeing big ayurvedic hospitals, but I didn’t. The truth is that most people in India, and I am told in China as well, turn to modern scientific medicine when they are really ill. Now don’t anybody tell me that this is all because of a conspiracy between `big pharma’ and orthodox doctors, who apparently collude to prevent ancient wisdom from reaching the people. The truth is that most people are able to distinguish truth from fiction, given the evidence, and that is why Indians are voting with their feet. They mostly realise that it’s really ancient bollocks not wisdom, and that age doesn’t add any credibility to it.


5 Responses

  1. Don’t say “regrettably” rather say “thankfully it is run by Christians who believe God gave them brains ’cause he wanted them to use them to understand his creation”.

    I may be an atheist but I have the greatest respect for the nuns and priests that taught me science. Not all Christians are nutjobs.

  2. Thanks Joe, but I remain unrepentant. It’s a good hospital and medical college, but that doesn’t justify the enormous harm done by the Catholic Church over millennia. The secular hospitals I visited in India were just as good, and at least they were not adorned with sickly posters of Jesus all over the walls.

  3. A stark reminder that the privileged in the west who choose “alternative medicines” can fall back on an evidenced based system if the going gets tough. A poignant blog post Majikthyse and one we should remember. Just a thought but isn’t praying for someone to get better just another form of CAM?

    • Of course it is. Prayer has been repeatedly tested in clinical trials without any robust evidence emerging. The trial I like the best is the study of European royal families. They all get prayers for their health every Sunday, but get sick just like the rest of us.

  4. I enjoyed your post, especially as I visited Bangalore and its St John’s Medical College last December. I think it should just be described as a Christian / Catholic institution, without value terms attached. And the campus has beautiful gardens and tree-lined avenues – there is even a small zoo which for health and safety reasons had to be called a ‘petting zoo’. I met the husband / wife team (doctors at the hospital) who organised the planting of trees and flowers on the campus over the last thirty years.

    Even the open-air shopping and eating area is, for Indian standards, well designed and clean.

    Just a little late comment on a minor aspect of your blog,

    And thank you for mentioning Galton’s study on the lack of effectiveness of intercessory prayer from 1883 in your response – always worth mentioning again. But it wasn’t a randomised trial…


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