Spoonful of Sugar

Why India’s push for alt-med in the public health system is ill-advised

31 October 2018
In 2017, the union minister of state for AYUSH, Shripad Yesso Naik set up 100 AYUSH hospitals across the country.
In 2017, the union minister of state for AYUSH, Shripad Yesso Naik set up 100 AYUSH hospitals across the country.

Since November 2014, the alternative treatment industry in India has been bolstered by the establishment of a dedicated ministry called the ministry of ayurveda, yoga & naturopathy, unani, siddha and homeopathy, or AYUSH. Upgraded from its status as a department, the AYUSH ministry now operates parallel to the ministry of health and family welfare, which focusses primarily on evidence-based modern medicine. In the past four years, the AYUSH ministry’s budget has more than doubled to Rs 1,428.7 crore in 2017-2018. With such serious money under its belt, plans for the industry’s scale and growth have been ramped up.

In 2017, the union minister of state for AYUSH, Shripad Yesso Naik, a Bachelor of Arts graduate with no scientific training, announced that the centre had approved proposals to set up 100 AYUSH hospitals across the country. This would include a major Ayurveda centre, called the All India Institute of Ayurveda—dreamed up as an equivalent of AIIMS in Delhi, India’s premier government teaching hospital. In addition, Naik spoke of plans to set up an Institute of Naturopathy in Pune, at a cost of Rs 1,000 crore. The government also approved postings for 4,000 AYUSH practitioners in primary health centres across the country. This year, there was an even more aggressive push to commemorate days promoting alt-med—as alternative treatment systems are popularly referred to—in the Indian public health system. The Homoeopathy Day in April, Yoga Day in June and National Ayurveda Day in November are all fallouts of this policy push.

Urban citizens, who rely on private medical care and often choose to combine a range of modern and traditional therapies, remain largely unaffected by this push on the health front. However, a majority of the rural population, a larger segment compared to the urban demographic, either cannot afford private care or do not have access to different therapy options. Even if they do have access, many do not possess the capacity to evaluate the efficacy of different treatments. Recent schemes, such as the Ayushman Bharat—a health insurance that promises to “cover over 10 crore poor and vulnerable families”—ensure that alt-med becomes the primary source of treatment for certain segments of the population.

Most forms of alt-med possess little or no scientific basis. In the case of Ayurveda, a relatively demonstrative form of alt-med, research frequently lacks experimental rigour and the few treatments that display effectiveness require a robust case-by-case analysis. However, homoeopathy is the one branch of alt-med that suffers from a glaring lack of scientific credibility since none of its treatments have ever been systematically proven.

Homoeopathy was founded in Germany in 1796 by the physician Samuel Hahnemann. It became a popular form of treatment at a time when a large number of disease mechanisms were still unknown. Today, it is prevalent in societies with a culture of traditional therapies, such as India and China. Its popularity tends to spread on the basis of anecdotes—everyone has a family member or an acquaintance who vouches for its miraculous properties. Its proponents claim it cures diseases ranging from cancers and infections to metabolic syndromes, such as type-2 diabetes.

Sumaiya Shaikh is a neuroscientist and a contributing science editor at Alt News.

Keywords: Nipah Homeopathy AIIMS yoga Ayurveda primary health centres naturopathy AYUSH modern medicine alt-med Unani