Ethical Implications of Traditional Medicine

Today’s reflection on traditional health practices could contribute to develop ethically reliable procedures that respect cultural traits but that also guarantee the safeguarding and proper addressing of the fundamental principles of bioethics.

Traditional medicine is today most often characterised by a wide variety of diverging practices which lack a solid legal and medical framework that could prevent deviations and abuse along with their potentially dangerous consequences for patients.

At the same time, traditional health practices are the primary health care provider for the inhabitants of many countries, and in some of them, or in remote and rural areas, they even represent the sole provider. In those places, practitioners of traditional health systems are largely available and provide easily accessible, culturally acceptable, low cost and largely holistic care to ill people.

This care has proved to be efficient for treating diseases such as HIV and AIDS, malaria and other parasitic conditions, and chronic and lifestyle diseases. On the other hand, traditional health practices have the potential to harm when they are applied in an inadequate or uncontrolled manner. This is for example the case of herbal medicine which power is generally underestimated and insufficiently known, or of practices that are exclusively turned to without consideration of their limitations.

Considering the extremely large proportion of practitioners active around the world and the even larger population calling on their knowledge, traditional health care raises fundamental questions and requires specific reflection to deal with its ethical implications. It entails a different approach to life, death, health and illness, and a different view of the doctor-patient relationship, of health services and of risk factors.

Traditional health practices pose the challenge of finding a way to combine cultural diversity and respect for individual cultures with medical obligations and universally accepted ethical principles such as consent, equality or dignity.

This for example entails to identify the stage at which beliefs and traditions could endanger or harm the patient and create conditions of vulnerability. For instance, in situations where an ailment is regarded as a supernatural occurrence that must be solely diagnosed and treated by supernatural means, the patient is directly deprived of his/her chance to receive appropriate health care: he/she cannot reject the culturally framed answer to his/her pain without violating taboos or threatening his/her social or religious identity and status. Here, the principles of autonomy and individual responsibility of a patient, which are part of the Universal Declaration on Bioethics and Human Rights, are impinged upon.

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