By Peris Thuo
Africa, My Motherland! She has evolved over the years from the exclusive use of traditional to embracing modern medicine. The world is watching as our continent strives to live up to its full potential in areas such as healthcare, education and infrastructure.
Health care delivery systems involve structured organizations of people, institutions and resources to ensure that the health needs of a target population are met. This remains to be an enormous challenge in Africa in areas such as leadership, governance, financing and accountability. The international finance corporation estimates that 25 to 30 billion US dollars are needed over the next decade to meet healthcare demand in Africa.
Complementary medicine refers to the health practice that approaches knowledge and beliefs incorporating plant, animal, mineral-based and spiritual therapy. These are either applied alone or in combination in diagnosis, disease prevention and maintenance of well being. We are now at a time where history is repeating itself and many patients are opting for complementary medicine. This is due to frustration for lack of cures for chronic diseases, affordability and accessibility. In addition, patients feel that they have more control over management of their treatment when using alternative treatment options and alternative medicine is viewed as safer than conventional medicine.
Effective incorporation of complementary medicine to health care systems would require proper policy and regulation. This is a big challenge in my country Kenya as it is estimated that nine in ten herbalists are fake. Most of these fake herbalists are based in our capital, Nairobi. They exploit vulnerable and gullible patients, mainly those suffering from chronic illness for commercial gain. This has contributed to the lack of faith in complementary medicine by the general public.
There is need for establishment of trust between health researchers and the genuine herbalists in order to successfully achieve this. Genuine herbalists are mainly based in the village. They are very skeptical about sharing their formulas with researchers for fear of exploitation. An ancestral aspect is also involved as most of these formulas have been passed from generation to generation. They fear that commercialization would not appease the ancestors. Trust has to be established between the two parties through establishment of proper policies to ensure that the genuine herbalist is protected.
Kenyatta National Teaching and Referral Hospital, Nairobi is the biggest of its kind in East and Central Africa. Research was conducted in the hospital to analyze the number of patients who use complementary medicine in addition to modern medicine. It was found that a number of inpatients would take their complementary medicine at night after the nurses had administered prescribed drugs and left the wards. Majority had not informed the physician that they were on these drugs. Reasons cited were: the physicians never asked, they would not understand, they would disapprove and the overall relationship between the physician and the patient would be affected.
Complementary medicine cannot be successfully incorporated if the physicians themselves have no faith in it. There is need for continuous medical education about the benefits of complementary medicine. Regulation of these medicines is crucial in ensuring that physicians can readily prescribe them to patients without hesitation.
Funding of complementary medicine research is mandatory. It is not possible to incorporate it to healthcare delivery systems unless all the necessary research and trials have been carried out. New delivery systems ought to be developed. A change in mindset is needed.
China has done it, Africa can do it too!