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Tuesday, October 1, 2013

Alternative Medicine Versus Western Medicine for IVF patients – Friend or Foe ?

This article is the brainchild of Dr.Malpani. Thank you Dr for giving me permission to reproduce it in my blog!

Indians were unaware of western medicines up to until three centuries ago. Ayurveda, a form of traditional and alternative medicine was practised in India for centuries. Infertile couples in olden days were treated by Ayurvedic or Unani medical practitioners by using plant-based medicines and, in addition, they provided life-style advices too. Undoubtedly, such medical practices are very effective for some forms of infertility and many infertile couples would have achieved their dream of starting a family via using them. When some couples found no luck with such treatments, they sought the help of the supernatural power to give them a baby; many went from temple to temple in search of God’s grace! Since knowledge about the functioning of the reproductive system and its defects were very much limited during that time, infertile couples at one point of time had to accept their fate and move on with life. Many resorted to adoption as a means of enjoying parenthood and some remarried so that they got a chance to propagate their genes and made sure their generation didn’t end prematurely!  

Times have changed today. Since the practice of Ayurvedic medicine was done by word of mouth during ancient days and is vigilantly guarded among families, the enormous knowledge our ancestors possessed about different curative plant compounds, their mode of preparation and the principle behind such practices are eventually lost! Although there are medical schools which teach Ayurveda, there are very few Ayurvedic practitioners existing in India today. Western medicine being based on strong scientific-evidence and rationality, gained importance eventually and is widely followed in today’s India. With improvement in biomedical research and the knowledge gained thereof, ground-breaking discoveries have emerged in the field of reproductive medicine. As a result, modern age infertile couples have enormous treatment options to deal with any kind of infertility problem. With patience and persistence most infertile couples can hope that their dream of having a baby will become a reality!

But the ironical truth is, even today, many infertile couples feel uncomfortable to use western medical advancements that are available in the field of reproductive medicine. The reasons are twofold: many western medicine based infertility treatments are costly and not everyone could afford to spend so much, as a result, many resort to traditional medical practices like Ayurveda or Unani (which are comparatively much cheaper) even though the chance of success is very low or even nonexistent for many infertility ailments using such traditional approach. The other reason is that, unfortunately, still many Indians believe that western medicine is evil and pose many unpleasant side-effects. Especially if you have a granny at home who never went to a modern hospital and managed all her and her family illnesses using traditional medicine, the first advice you receive will be to seek the help of an Ayurvedic medical practitioner for your infertility problem! Some even depend on “faith healers” like “witch doctors” to cure their infertility problem.

So, if you are faced with infertility problem what will you do? If IVF patients depend on such alternative medicine for improving their chance of success, does it make sense? How do doctors who practice western medicine view it when their patients depend on alternative therapies to cure their infertility problem or to improve their chance of success?  Although alternative medicine is practiced world-wide, a lot of infertility specialists are not always happy when patients depend on such treatments. They feel that the patients are being fooled by these primitive systems of healthcare and they pity them for wasting their precious reproductive period by following treatments, which they think, are fruitless.

Doctors who practice western medicine spend many years in medical school, acquiring their degrees. They then work hard at acquiring practical experience in a hospital, so that they can get a license to practice medicine. IVF doctors study for as long as 10 years before they can hang out their shingle as IVF specialists. Not only are they proud of their expertise and experience, they naturally want to guard their domain jealously. They have a low opinion about alternative medicine and its practitioners because they are poorly trained and they acquire a degree in as little as 6 months. Many IVF doctors feel that such degrees are of no value and are just a “license to kill”. Also, they often have a superiority complex, because only western medicine has modern technology (such as vaginal ultrasound scans and endoscopy) at their disposal, to make an accurate diagnosis, based on which they can recommend the right course of treatment on a scientific basis. They think that alternative medicine practitioners do not have the same depth and breadth of training as they posses and many doctors feel that alternative medicine clinics are encroaching on their territory. They look down on these doctors as being quacks, who have no effective therapeutic interventions to offer because they lack any evidence to prove their efficacy.

On the other hand, many alternative medicine practitioners are equally happy to bad-mouth infertility specialists who practice western medicine. They scare their patients by telling them that IVF is “artificial” and the babies born out of IVF are “weak” or abnormal. While some envy the high income an IVF doctor gets, others genuinely believe that the holistic options which they offer have a higher success rate. They feel that IVF is like band-aid therapy, and does not attempt to fix the underlying problems in the infertile couples.

As a result of this conflict between the doctors who practice western medicine and alternative medicine, patients end up getting confused as to which is the reliable argument. In order to try their luck, they shuttle back and forth between these two medical practitioners and finally get frustrated with the treatment process and many end up sacrificing their dreams of a baby being born to them. If this is the case, how should a responsible doctor react? What advice should they give their patients?

We need to remember that many infertile couples will actively seek out alternative medicine options, even when undergoing treatment for IVF. These options are highly respected by their family elders and deeply rooted in their culture. They are also much less expensive. Hence they believe quite logically that even if they have not been proven to help, they will not cause any harm (although this is not true)! This is why they want to cover all possible bases and try them out, to ensure that they have not left any stone unturned in their baby chase. There are tons of anecdotal success stories of women who have conceived after taking a particular herbal concoction; and this, even as the scientific base of alternative medicine is not always strong.

Doctors who practice western medicine must understand that unless and until they take into account the cultural healing beliefs of the patients and learn to incorporate them within their treatment regimen in a rational way, it is impossible to achieve patient satisfaction. Improved patient satisfaction will lead to better compliance to therapy. Cultural competency of the healthcare provider is very important to help patients get the best medical care and also to be successful in one’s own medical profession.

Alternative medical practitioners should also understand the limitation of the treatment they can offer to an infertile couple and encourage them to seek appropriate infertility treatment from western medical practitioners when needed. After all, a patient with a blocked fallopian tube cannot be cured with Ayurveda and Unani medicines. Giving patients false hope and wasting their precious fertile period is very unethical on their part.

Every infertile couple has to decide wisely about their treatment options. Of course, there are some problems which can be cured by alternative therapies (for example anovulation due to PCOD!). But there are problems like low sperm count, blocked fallopian tubes and much more which cannot be cured using herbal concoctions. A well-educated patient will know for sure which treatment should be opted for, after analyzing their medical problem. It is also wise to find a balance, for example when you are going through IVF and if your alternative medicine practitioner advices you to take a herbal potion which he might think will help create a healthy environment for embryo implantation or which might balance your hormones, then it is nothing wrong in trying it, provided such advice is given by a reputed practitioner who is not a quack. Please do not believe in the claims of mushrooming internet sites which are claiming to provide you with herbal therapy to make your IVF a success. First, you will never know if what they are providing you will be of benefit and the next concern is, it should not harm you or your IVF cycle. Remember, many herbal medicines carry the risk of being contaminated with heavy metals!

Rather than taking a confrontationist approach, patients would find it a lot easier if IVF doctors and alternative medicine practitioners could learn to work together for the wellbeing of the patient.


  1. Hi manju...

    Thanks for all the guidance.....and yes u r true India is full of herbs and concoctions which claim to do miracles...but end up wasting our precious time.


  2. Though i am studying Western Medicine presently,but am a great admirer of Ayurveda specially from earlier.Actually I always wanted to practice this form of Traditional Medicine,someday but didn't got chance.
    I never Appreciate or criticize anything beyond a limit.But the thing is,everything has its own Significance,it can be Good (helpful) for some while others find it Bad (fruitless) for them.
    No doubt,Western Medicine rules the world since a long time but there may be some areas in Medicine,where Alternative Medicine can even work better than Western System and also there must be some areas where Alternative System find itself to be completely confined.
    In my view,it will be helpful that firstly one should have thorough knowledge about the process like (A Disease,first thing to know about the seriousness,is it curable enough with Traditional Practise or it needs much new approach as in Western Medicine).Main thing is to get cured,by either of them.
    Though I am not aware of IVF process,but i think it rely much on Western Medicine except a few aspects as earlier mentioned here.So its really simple for this thing here,to go ahead with keeping in mind the fruitfullness of the procedure.
    Important thing is Knowledge,if one is enough aware about every aspect of any System of Medicine regarding his/her problem,then this can benefit surely.
    Also,Am a 2nd year Medicine student only so not much aware of aspects of Medicine as of now,these are simply my personal views about this topic !
    Please,Suggestions and Guidance always welcome,Thanks.
    Aashu !

    1. Thanks Ashu for the input, I really appreciate what you have said. True, being well-informed as a patient is very, very important. Being an expert in our own illness is not easy for everyone and when facing illness it is not easy to make correct decissions. I think doctors should be very honest with patients and tell them which would be their best option to get the best possible cure and care. There is nothing wrong in following the therapy which is conveninet for you personally (mentally, physically and financially)- be it alternative medicine or western medicine, but knowing which will give the best possible result is very important too. For example, one of my aunt developed diabetes. She preferred alternative medicine and went to an Ayurvedic practitioner. He asked her to take some medicines and told her that she needs no diet control. The end result was, she ended up with no insulin secretion at all from her pancreas after sometime. All her insulin secreting cells are damaged irreversibly. If she had proper diet control this wouldn't have happened. Her ignorance costed her, her life! And if that alternative medicine practitioner is wise and honest enough, he would have sent her to a western medicine practitioner when her diabetes was not under control. Knowledge is the best medicine :)


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