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Traditional healing in the modern world

Filipinos resort to both traditional and modern healing systems to attain and maintain health. Our notions of health go beyond how people respond to disease or illness (curing and responding to the physical health issues). We are also concerned with and achieving overall wellbeing that includes emotional, mental, spiritual, and financial goals.

“Modern” healing systems are identified with institutionalized Western biomedicine often regarded as scientific, advanced, and current. “Traditional” Filipino healing systems, on the other hand, by definition, refer to everything not taught in medical school. Traditional healing may also be known as alternative, complementary, homeopathic, holistic, folk medicine, or ethnomedicine. These two healing systems are sometimes viewed as opposing poles—the scientific and anecdotal; the old and new; the backward and advanced.

While Filipino traditional healing is sometimes perceived to be inferior to modern healing, the point of this discussion is to dispel some of those negative perceptions among those unconvinced of the merits of traditional healing in the modern world.

First, the dual dichotomies between “traditional” and ‘modern” meant for easy understanding are not clear-cut and actually blurred most of the time. Both traditional and modern healing is coexistent if not intertwined.

Not all will automatically embrace biomedicine. Traditional healing might be considered alternative to western medicine for us in the metro, yet in isolated communities, modern medicine is secondary to traditional knowledge as their first option to treat their ailments. Even so, I find members of older generations residing in the city, despite their education and possessing enough resources to access biomedicine, remain skeptical and distrustful to modern healing systems.

They belong to the generation that experienced the benefits of local knowledge and feel that modern medicine is not perfect, either. They think that traditional healing is less invasive and cheaper. Natural remedies are viewed to have minimal side effects compared to chemical drugs even if there is also such a thing as natural poison that can equally harm and compromise one’s health.

Professionalizing traditional healing

Openness to traditional healing may be influenced by one’s upbringing and culture. Exposure to ideas does matter in one’s level of comfort in accepting alternatives to modern medicine. And acceptance of any healing system for that matter, can be attributed, but is not limited to factors such as age, education, place, upbringing, or culture.

For example, the traditional Filipino hilot is offered among a menu of massage therapies in posh hotels and spas today. The Association of Traditional Health Aid Givers Philippines, Inc. (ATHAG) was forged as an answer to professionalizing, standardizing, and legitimizing local knowledge by elevating it to a “science.” This has probably aided the practice in penetrating modern spaces.

My former students (some of them now in medical school), for a class requirement witnessed how another kind of local hilot involved in assisting birthing was integrated into health structures in Lipa, Batangas. Instead of disenfranchising the hilot, health professionals gave practitioners additional skills to enhance their practice and partnered with them in identifying and referring risky cases for hospital birthing. By respecting the existing local health structures, this effort has resulted to lower infant mortality rates in Lipa. At the same time, the certification of having received additional training gave the locals more confidence and credibility in their craft.

Perhaps the narrowing divide today is enough to demonstrate that both health systems continue to contribute to one’s health  and wellbeing.

The epitome of the integration between modern and traditional can be seen in how traditional healing has found a niche in reputedly advanced medical institutions in the metro. The St. Luke’s Medical Center Global City has a Complementary Medicine Service offering alternative health systems like acupuncture, myotherapy, reflexology, and wellness massage. The Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation Department at the Asian Hospital Medical Center boasts of services offering medical acupuncture that is supposed to be endorsed by the World Health Organization (WHO) to cure 40 diseases and conditions.

Local flora in biomedicine

Ironically, as modern institutions are learning from traditional Filipino knowledge, even capitalizing from it, traditional societies are slowly embracing biomedicine and veering away from the old ways, something that has been highly valued as part of local cultural heritage. For instance, a graduate from our department, Pinky Jalandoni, learned from young mothers in a village in Iloilo that they opt to buy over-the-counter drugs to cure their children’s fevers. The same phenomenon of resorting to biomedical remedies rather than the ethnomedical remedies used by their elders was observed among the younger Ifugao due to unintended impacts of modernization.

Local knowledge cannot always explain how common remedies work scientifically. They may even be unaware that it does have curative or healing value even. But neither do doctors know it all or does modern medicine provide all the answers to our health needs.

Back when I was an anthropology student taking medical anthropology classes under Mike Tan, I was particularly fascinated with recipes from household ingredients my mentor taught us to concoct. I found pleasure in discovering the relevance of cultural knowledge, on how foliage in people’s immediate environment is used as part of their everyday lives, including for healing. Folk knowledge is part of peoples’ cultural heritage.

The knowledge on flora with medicinal value might come from among mothers’ cornucopia in caring for their children’s wellbeing—kalamansi to lighten a scar, salabat to soothe a sore throat, tea from guava leaves used as a disinfectant for wounds, and a whole lot more. Some might label “common knowledge” by lay mothers, neighbors, and people without special medical training as unreliable compared to modern well-researched scientific formulations by drug companies. But drug companies, too, have benefitted from folk healing practices by appropriating through patents what “commoners” have always known. Lagundi that emerged from folk use is one of the 10 Philippine medicinal plants pharmacologically studied, clinically approved, and commercially made available in mainstream biomedical practice

Ethnobotany, the study of local plants use (including plants used by local health specialists like the albularyo, babaylan, manggagamot, etc.), has historically and routinely been documented by anthropologists as part of the efforts to understand Philippine culture and society. We find many well-documented books on medical flora by anthropologists, botanists, doctors, pharmacists, and chemists. Plants with medicinal value have experienced a long history of collaboration and information exchanges between and among locals and scientists.

Knowledge by commoners has long since informed and continues to guide modern science. My favorite example is the tawa-tawa (euphorbia hirthalinn) or what a mother from Bacolod is said to have always known and used through generations for healing fevers. Interest in further studying tawa-tawa spurred from its use in the treatment of modern outbreaks like dengue. While the use of tawa-tawa as therapy for dengue is received with various reactions, including caution by doctors who warn against its not having gone through rigorous clinical testing, students from the University of Santo Tomas (UST), for instance, investigated and found its ability to increase platelet count, improve bleeding, and blood clotting time in rats.

When we think about it, there may be differences, but also similarities in both healing paradigms. Both healing systems are based on collective knowledge tested through time; have had a share of successes and failures; and update and refine knowledge through time to accommodate new experience and information. Most of all, both have something to offer for health maintenance and healing.

Assuming the term “modern” can also mean practice in today’s contemporary society, modern scientific and common knowledge have pervasively  been interconnected.

Traditional healing persists in today’s modern world beyond class, education, gender, culture, space, or geography. And before we become dismissive to, scoff at, or ridicule or relegate the placebo effect of alternative, different, strange, and unfamiliar healing modalities we encounter, we must think twice about what traditional healing practice can really offer its subscribers. I encourage you to study what works, understand why it works (or discern what doesn’t work), and have the freedom to decide on the healing system most appropriate and most suitable for yourself.

Featured image taken from this site.

Editor’s note: A version of this article was first published by Philippine Panorama. Suzanna Roldan is a faculty member of the Department of Sociology and Anthropology of the Ateneo de Manila University.


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