The Lancet: WHO's new vision for traditional medicine (11)

24 September, 2023

Dear Chris,

Many thanks for your latest message: The Lancet: WHO's new vision for traditional medicine (10)

In response to my question "whether governments should provide support for treatments with questionable effectiveness" you say that '88% of Member States of WHO have acknowledged their use of traditional & complementary medicine ‘nonconventional’' and that 'Canada, France, Germany and Italy … report that between 70% and 90% of their populations have used traditional medicines under the titles ‘complementary’, ‘alternative’, or ‘nonconventional’'.

There is no denying that people in most countries use traditional and complementary medicine. But this doesn't address the question as to whether governments should provide support for treatments with questionable effectiveness. It just makes the question more important.

You also note that this question needs to be asked about all treatments, whether T&CM or allopathic. Yes indeed, I completely agree, and this was the original intention of my question. It is clear that some of what is done in allopathic medicine is of questionable effectiveness. I am not seeking to pitch allopathic against traditional medicine, but to ask what can or should be done about any questionable treatment.

You write 'quite recently that the allopathic world is very capable of making egregious mistakes in recommended treatments – the use of chloroquine against COVID-19, for example'. Again, it is clear that 'mistakes' are inevitable in any system of medicine. Indeed, in the case of chloroquine against COVID-19 this was not so much a problem with the allopathic, science-based approach. It was more that some people were too quick to claim a breakthrough while others (including presidents of state whose worldview does not understand evidence-informed policy and practice) were too ready to believe it. It was the pursual of a science-based approach that soundly debunked the original claims.

Also, I don't agree that 'allopathic medicine... is particularly subject to misinformation'. Health misinformation has existed since the dawn of time. Many of the most absurd and dangerous myths around COVID-19 were not based in allopathic medicine, but in popular myth and rumour.

Where I do agree with you is that 'traditional medicine... has not been sufficiently scientifically tested'. As we have discussed, this is a huge challenge, partly because of the difficulty in applying scientific method to some types of traditional medicine, and partly (perhaps most importantly) because there is a lack of financial incentive for investment by big pharma.

Best wishes, Neil

HIFA profile: Neil Pakenham-Walsh is coordinator of HIFA (Healthcare Information For All), a global health community that brings all stakeholders together around the shared goal of universal access to reliable healthcare information. HIFA has 20,000 members in 180 countries, interacting in four languages and representing all parts of the global evidence ecosystem. HIFA is administered by Global Healthcare Information Network, a UK-based nonprofit in official relations with the World Health Organization. Email: