Letter to the McGill Daily – Neo-colonial medicine?

I haven’t written for a while, but a recent article in a McGill student paper got me motivated to write the editors. The piece I’m responding to is an opinion piece that claims that scientific medicine is a paternalistic system that displaces traditional practices around the world. Most frustratingly, the difference between scientific and nonscientific medicine is framed as Western/non-Western, and the author labels the scientific establishment “racist, ethnocentric, and neo-colonial”.

The article can be viewed here.

There are just too many fallacies to properly address in 300 words, but I did my best (view online here):

We don’t talk about how Middle-Eastern Mathematics, with it’s cold and sterile zeroes, spread throughout the world because “scientists” said it was more effective, tragically displacing the Traditional Mathematics of the rest of the world. Yet somehow the same argument gets made when we talk about modern medicine.

In Decolonizing Healthcare (104:3) the author makes a distinction between Western and Nonwestern medicine and criticizes the Western approach for ignoring traditional methods. The thing is, the Western-Nonwestern divide doesn’t exist. There is a division in medicine, but it’s not about geography. It’s between the medicine we know works, and the medicine we’re not so sure about.

Modern medicine is not hostile to traditional methods, it just needs to know that they actually make people better. Unfortunately, many traditional methods haven’t been shown to do so. Modern medicine has not avoided these practices because of lack of understanding, as the author erroneously claims, but because there is no evidence that they actually treat disease. Gambling on such unproven methods wastes limited resources and diverts patients from treatments that have a much greater chance of success.

In many cases where traditional methods have been found to be effective, they are carefully tested and eventually become standard in modern medicine. A favorite example is the antimalarial artemisinin, originally identified from a traditional Chinese herb. This life-saving compound is now produced and used more safely, effectively, and at greatly reduced cost, thanks to modern science and technology.

Modern medicine certainly has many problems. Economic factors have a corrupting influence on patient care. Paternalistic practices can prevent patients from receiving the best possible treatment. Medicine is largely reactive, treating illness rather than proactively promoting health. However, introducing a false concept of “Western medicine” and dismissing all proven medical practice as neocolonial does nothing constructive to address these issues.

Shane Caldwell

PhD Biochemistry