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Complementary Health Practices

Social and Political Awareness

Alternative modes of healing seem to promise a richer way of practicing health care than the standard drugs and surgery used in conventional Western medicine. However, holistic practices and practitioners can have some of the same weaknesses as conventional Western medicine and M.D.s, as well as additional problems of their own.

In complementary medicine, as in any system where practitioners or experts are the more powerful members of society, racism and elitism can affect the care of people of color. Some institutions devoted to holistic health deal with the broader issues of the people they serve, including racism. For example, La Cl’nica de La Raza in California is one model where complementary health care is offered in the context of community-based education and service. 

When I first sought holistic health care practitioners, I was a little nervous, because many of the practitioners and clients didn’t look like me, nor did they seem to have a broad cultural understanding. I remember walking into offices where people looked at me as though I were an intruder. But when other folks walked in the office, they were welcomed and greeted graciously. Nonetheless, after many attempts with practitioners who were afraid to touch me because of the color of my skin, I found people who looked like me, felt like me, and were eager to assist me in my struggle to keep healthy in a very unhealthy society.

When complementary approaches identify the locus of healing only in the individual, as conventional Western medical practice often does, they disregard political factors such as poverty, racism, and environmental degradation as major sources of ill health. For instance, a conventional practitioner might prescribe anti-depressants or sedatives, while a traditional practitioner might prescribe herbs or a change in diet; neither may realize that health problems might be caused by domestic violence, a dangerous job situation, the rigors of parenting, or the grind of poverty.

Trusting our capacity for self-healing is not the same thing as blaming ourselves for illness. Some alternative practitioners imply--or state--that if we get sick or don’t get well, it’s our fault. They may suggest that wrong thinking, lack of will, a driven or meek personality, or insufficient faith in the practitioner is the real root of illness. This “blame the victim” attitude is both cruel and inappropriate.

Access to Care

Many complementary therapies remain inaccessible to low-income people. Traditional methods may be affordable within specific ethnic communities but can be expensive when provided to, or by, outsiders to those communities. Complementary therapies are not always covered by insurance, though some insurance companies cover a limited number of complementary treatments or offer discounts on treatments with selected providers.

While insurance companies should cover complementary medicine, insurance is not a panacea. Many women are uninsured or have limited access to health care facilities. Also, insurance is designed to pay for treatment when we are ill, while complementary care emphasizes staying healthy.

Conventional Western medicine will have to change before complementary and alternative medicine can be fully integrated. This may not happen until the profit motive is removed from health care services. For example, herbs and dietary supplements are not patentable and cannot be as profitable as drugs. Effective botanical treatments and mind-body therapies won’t be prescribed as long as most of doctors’ continuing education is sponsored by pharmaceutical companies. Complementary therapies may best be utilized within a single-payer health care system, which could emphasize preventive care and a broad range of cost-effective therapies. We can promote such changes by writing to our legislators, joining organizations, and educating others and ourselves. As more research better defines which holistic practices are effective, we will be better able to advocate for their more widespread availability.

Excerpted from the 2005 edition of Our Bodies, Ourselves, © 2005, Boston Women's Health Book Collective.


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