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Another day, another irresponsible piece about AYUSH

An op-ed by Ram N. Kumar published in the Economic Times has suggested that India could potentially lead the way in providing universal healthcare through ayurveda. Could this be a possibility, or would the doubling down on the provision of ayurvedic treatments divert ever more funds away from allopathic treatments that have been proven in their efficacy?


A step too far?

Some ayurvedic treatments, such as the use of herbs and spices like ginger, can provide relief from the symptoms of many conditions. However, in the case of serious illness proper medical attention should be sought out.

It is in the beginning of the article’s “five reasons for India to lead universal healthcare with ayurveda” that issues begin to arise.

“Western medicine is becoming more expensive and ineffective in terms of assuring overall the health of the common citizen” states Kumar, the founder and CEO of a technology-based ayurveda platform, NirogStreet. The expense of medical treatment is up for debate. Many Indian generics companies have brought the cost of some medicines down considerably. However, it cannot be denied that medical expenses are a major issue for the majority of Indians. This is especially true when it comes to NCDs, the costs of which are often paid over a lifetime and drive untold numbers into poverty.

On the point of effectiveness, allopathic medicine has a proven track record Kumar neglects to acknowledge.

Quite possibly the best modern example of this is that of polio. It was not ayurvedic treatments that rid India (and, indeed, the rest of the world bar two countries) of this disease, which is known for causing paralysis in children and consequently reduces their quality of life permanently. It was western medicine, in the form of vaccines. This, coupled with determination both at a government and grassroots level, rid India of a viral disease that had previously blighted hundreds of thousands, causing untold suffering.

Ayurvedic systems offer little to help those affected by severe diseases which require urgent treatment. Likewise, there is little that ayurvedic treatment can do to save the life of a person bleeding out as a result of an injury. While ayurvedic treatment may have its place, and even be hugely effective in improving overall health through the reduction of risk factors towards many diseases, it can do little when a person is in need of urgent medical attention as a result of an injury inducing trauma.

Issues also arise where claims of “ancient medicine” that act as a practical panacea are thrown out to people desperate for a cure. Examples such as “”, claiming to have already cured HIV, are not just misinformed, but outright dangerous. Individuals may buy into this process, foregoing proper medical treatment. This will not only allow their own condition to worsen, but may allow them to believe themselves cured, unwittingly spreading the disease to others.


Primary healthcare in rural areas


Among the five reasons for India to adopt an ayurvedic universal health system is that “The Ayurvedic medicine system is the only cost-effective solution that can enhance the healthcare accessibility to a vast population. Traditional medicine practitioners are still primary healthcare providers in the country’s rural and remote areas” This statement, coupled with an earlier statement claiming “every Ayurveda practitioner is a proof and witness of the health miracles this age-old medical science has accomplished”, would suggest that those in rural areas where ayurvedic treatments are the norm would be the model of perfect health. In reality, this is far from the truth.

The urban/rural divide in healthcare infrastructure is considerable. Many in rural areas cannot access basic medical services, for this, their health has suffered considerably. This is summarised by India’s most common cause of death, heart disease. India needs 88,000 cardiologists to adequately provide cardiac care for its population. It has just 4,000. As the facilities to provide for cardiac care are largely absent in rural areas, the vast majority of these cardiologists will work in urban centres.

To suggest that rural inhabitants benefit from having ayurvedic practitioners as their often sole medical provider ignores the realities and dangers faced by those living in these communities. Even simple infections can prove fatal to people living without access to allopathic treatment. To suggest that “western medicine” should be ignored in favour of further ayurvedic treatments for these individuals does nothing but put them in danger.

Healthcare infrastructure is vitally needed in rural India. Universal healthcare is an admirable goal, there is even a place for ayurvedic treatment within this concept as an aid in prevention of chronic disease. However, diverting further funding away from allopathic medicine means a considerable segment of the population will continue to live with next to no access to healthcare infrastructure.


The positives of ayurveda


In many cases ayurvedic treatments may go hand in hand with allopathic medicine to great effect. In the case of India’s noncommunicable disease (NCD) epidemic, the adjustment of lifestyle factors to follow a more ayurvedic lifestyle — with frequent exercises such as yoga, and a largely vegetarian diet — could have great effect in minimising risks of conditions such as heart disease.

The Economic Times article acknowledges the potential for ayurveda in reducing India’s burden of NCDs. They begin by stating the sheer numbers of people either unable to access medical treatment, or forced into poverty as a result of paying medical bills.

“7.3 billion population lacks access to essential health services,” says Kumar “Around 800 million people have to spend ten percent of their income on their healthcare. And more than 100 million people become severely poor due to the medical expenses they incur.”  

With this in mind, following a largely ayurvedic lifestyle in order to curb the risks of developing numerous diseases is a cost effective means of allowing for better health and the reduction of medical bills incurred as a result of being affected by these diseases.

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