Medicine: Eastern or Western, Conventional or Complementary?


By Catriona Valenta

img_0437-jpg_lucid_1Let me declare a conflict of interest. My career as a provider of Western medicine has greatly influenced me, and I have never chosen complementary medicine myself, nor have I recommended it to my patients.  And 38 years of membership of a spiritual organization has not left me unaffected. I have long been fascinated by the sometimes fine line between science, spirituality and superstition.

It is undeniable that there has been an enormous surge of interest in “alternative medicine,” and with the ageing of our own UC baby boomers, many of us have friends who may be tackling serious illness with non-conventional treatments.

What did Reverend Moon mean when in his 1987 speech to health care professionals in our movement he said we need a careful blending of the Eastern concept of medicine (what is already being done in the Orient) with Western medicine?

I offer my answers to the following questions:

  • What is the “Eastern concept” of medicine? How can we define Eastern and Western medicine? Is it a purely geographical distinction? Where does alternative medicine fit in?
  • What can the different approaches contribute to make a system of health care that is holistic, principled and ethical?
  • How can we make informed and balanced decisions and as health care professionals help our patients to do the same? What sources of information are trustworthy?
  • Why do so many people shun Western medicine and chose alternative therapies?


“Western medicine” is a system based on science, and is “evidence-based.” Many cringe at this term, but can one criticize the wisdom of “the judicious use of best evidence in making decisions about the care of individual patients?”

This concept is so essential that it is astonishing it was not thus formulated until 1992, especially when long ago, Hippocrates recognized the same thing when he stated “science begets knowledge and opinion ignorance.”

Decisions about health care used to be based on prejudice, personal experience or anecdote.

Bloodletting, for example, practiced in ignorance of anatomy and physiology, was endorsed by the medical profession and not discarded until clinical trials showed unequivocally it was not only ineffective, but dangerous.

Clinical trials, especially those that are double blinded, randomized and placebo controlled, are the gold standard for testing treatment in scientific medicine. One of the first clinical trials was carried out in the 1740s by Scotsman James Lind, who firmly established that sailors given lemons or limes did not develop scurvy.  Although at that time the mechanism of action was unknown (we now know it is vitamin C), what was important was the demonstration of efficacy. Western medicine then is scientific medicine. It is a system that emphasizes verification and results.

What then, is Eastern medicine?

By default, it includes any medical practice not necessarily answerable to measurable scientific principles and where evidence-based scrutiny is either not considered necessary, is not applied, or standards not met.

Thus this definition embraces not only practices which arose in the East, such as ayuverda or traditional Chinese medicine (TCM), but also Western practices such as homeopathy and a whole spectrum of healing modalities often referred to as “complementary and alternative medicine” (CAM).

I define Western medicine as a system which is evidence-based and scientific and Eastern medicine as anything else (thus embracing CAM as well as TCM).

Strengths of each system

We do not need to look far to find the accomplishments of Western medicine.

Insulin, antibiotics, advanced anesthesia and surgical techniques, transplantation medicine, joint replacements, gene therapy — the list of achievements which have improved and extended the lives of millions is endless.

Given this, why does Western medicine have so many detractors? What has gone wrong?

While the great strength of Western medicine lies in its emphasis on results and verification — the science of medicine — Western medicine has forgotten the art of medicine.

What is the art of medicine? It is the art of attempting to understand and meet the needs of the patient as an individual with not only physical but also spiritual, social and emotional needs; holistic medicine in the purest sense of the word. Maybe we should call it the heart of medicine.

And this is where, in my opinion, CAM has been able to “fill the gap” and address a need, using its great strengths: spending time with, listening to and attempting to address the needs of the whole patient.

But just as Eastern medicine’s strength is  “heart,” its weakness is that it is shaky on the science and sometimes tries to explain itself with pseudo-science. Let us override science at our peril.

Some say that CAM works on a different level and is therefore not subject to scientific scrutiny or clinical trials.

I disagree.

If we are going to recommend a treatment, we want to recommend something that has been shown to work, and it has to work better than a placebo. No discussion on this topic would be complete without considering the placebo effect (any medication or intervention influencing an outcome but without an active ingredient).

There are still widespread misconceptions such as that if a symptom responds to the placebo effect it was not real or “all in the mind.” Absolutely not! Symptoms such as pain and anxiety may be subjective, but are nonetheless very real.  How the placebo response is produced is still poorly understood, but expectation, suggestion, and conditioning all play a part and probably work by mobilizing physiological mechanisms such as neurotransmitters and endomorphins.

Although there is quite some individual variation, we are all placebo responders to a greater or lesser degree and at least 30%, if not even up to 60%, of symptomatic improvement is due to the placebo effect (which will also potentiate any active treatment).

With this understanding, we can see the importance of showing that any treatment, whether Eastern or Western, performs consistently better than placebo before it is endorsed and marketed.

I maintain this is a weakness in CAM. Many CAM modalities have failed to prove themselves as superior to placebo. In fact, one might say that CAM makes extraordinarily creative use of the placebo effect.


Good decision-making

In an acute situation with threat to life or limb, I want to be taken to the hospital and not the herbalist. I doubt many would disagree.

But in the less acute, not immediately life threatening but often no less serious situations, what then?

We have to look at evidence and outcomes. What is the treatment with the best track record for my condition?

Where is this information available? There are three main sources.

The Internet

The Internet is a jungle of information and must be approached with a healthy dose of skepticism. How else to digest misleading headlines such as: “Chemotherapy, not cancer kills”?  Yes, chemotherapy has drastic side effects and is sometimes used unwisely; but for some cancers it can be curative. (When I was a student in the 1970s, less than 50% with a diagnosis of cancer were alive five years later. Now it is about 75%)

But lay people can learn to critically look behind the catchy headlines, claims and statistics and ask basic questions such as:

  • What is the source of the information and who is making the statement? Is it a representative of a reputable official medical body or a maverick with a suspect or fake degree?
  • Is there bias or self-interest? Not only “big pharma” is profit orientated — there is a lot of money to be made with CAM.
  • If a trial or study is quoted as evidence — how big was it? Was it “in vitro” or clinically tested? Randomized? Placebo controlled? Validated? Peer reviewed?

Friends and neighbors: Anecdotal evidence

Anecdotal evidence is alluring and fascinating, but pretty meaningless. It is human nature to be influenced by testimony, either positive or negative, especially when coming from someone we know and trust. But the fact that my Aunt Mary’s illness improved when she was taking x, does not make x the next wonder drug. There may have been confounding factors such as the weather, a change in lifestyle, another medication, or maybe just a natural remission.

Health care providers

Well, isn’t my doctor qualified to give me advice? Maybe, if (s)he had time.

There are some uncaring and corrupt doctors, but most are overwhelmed and rushed. This is a huge failing and a major factor as to why people turn to alternative practitioners.  “The doctor is the drug,” wrote Michael Balint, a psychotherapist working in the UK in the 1960s, stressing the power of this underused therapeutic relationship.

And doctors may have their own biases and prejudices. A second opinion is usually a good idea.

From whatever sources information is gleaned, the ultimate decision must be an informed one.

Thus while it is perfectly legitimate to reject any conventional treatment if the outcome is unproven or the side effects unacceptable, it is problematic when conventional treatment is rejected based on an uninformed or emotionally biased opinion such as: “It is artificial or chemical.” Many natural things such as arsenic and mercury are poisons, but I would be lost without my “unnatural” reading glasses.

X cured her cancer by diet alone.” Anecdotal.

“The government/doctor/big pharma are withholding or opposing effective alternative therapies because of greed or self-interest.” This expresses a lack of trust in Western medicine taken to extremes. There are some with a fundamentally suspicious nature and a tendency towards conspiracy theories; for them the whole Western medical establishment is Satan. Such a deeply entrenched mindset may not be moved by logic, but we as health care providers have at least a duty to point out the above fallacies and possible consequences of rejecting good evidence-based guidelines.

While Western medicine usually offers the best options if disease containment or cure is the objective and likely to be attained, control of symptoms or in “functional” or “psychosomatic” illness (where there is no demonstrable organic cause), it may be reasonable to consider alternatives if they are:

  • not harmful
  • not a substitute for something more effective
  • not disproportionately expensive

Why do so many reject Western medicine and turn to alternatives?

Let me summarize. Western medicine:

  • Tends to see a sick person as a machine with parts that need to be fixed, and emphasizes the science more than the art of medicine
  • Often fails to meet the high standards to which it should be accountable. Greed and corruption are rampant; patients may be over investigated and over treated, often driven by a fear of litigation.
  • Is effective, and the downside may be horrendous side-effects whereas alternatives are seen as more benign (skeptics would attribute this to a lack of efficacy) and “natural.” But we need not necessarily reject something that is painful or has side-effects. Did not Father liken himself to a physician coming with a painful solution?

Let us also remember that a great deal of illness can be avoided or delayed if we take responsibility and follow basic principles such as sensible eating (without fad diets or supplements), exercising as an integral part of our daily routine, and maintaining good social contacts — extended to “living for the sake of others.”

Returning to Father’s statement about Eastern medicine: I think the essential concept which needs to be “blended” with Western medicine is none other than what Father loved to talk about — true love. The practice of true love and wise use of individual responsibility will take us further than any questionable or pseudo-scientific “healing” modalities.

Let us take the very best of what scientific medicine offers and deliver it with a heart of true love and service.♦

Adapted from a presentation the author delivered in November 2016 at the first European Cranes Club Health Seminar, Seebenstein, Austria.

Catriona Valenta obtained her medical degree from Glasgow University, Scotland, and completed post-graduate training in Family Practice before taking a career break as a full-time missionary in the United States. Shortly after joining her husband in Germany in 1985, she worked for the U.S. Army Europe as a Civilian Medical Provider until retiring from clinical practice in 2010. She maintains an active interest in the changing field of medicine, and while being very grounded in science, strives to be open to the more indefinable spiritual aspects of healing.

20 thoughts on “Medicine: Eastern or Western, Conventional or Complementary?

Add yours

  1. Hi Catriona,

    Thank you for this interesting article on a timely topic. I especially agree on the importance of what you name “the art of medicine”. I had an experience with a doctor who lacked the empathy and probably also the time needed to listen. But he did find the time to make a careless and thoughtless comment on my condition, which caused me some anxiety and subsequently became the cause of strong dizziness. First I did not make the connection, but after consulting another doctor and reading up on the causes of dizziness I concluded that its cause was rooted in my previous anxiety.

    That leads me on to an other point I want to add here: namely “self-healing”. Over a certain time period I dealt with the cause of my anxiety and gradually the dizziness decreased and finally it disappeared completely. I did not take any medication or undergo treatment. I worked on this consciously within myself — and it worked. Now I know, based on my own experience, that each person has a “self-healing potential” within that can and should be utilized in supporting the healing process of various illnesses.

    My two cents.

    1. I absolutely agree, Johann. “Tincture of time” or watchful waiting is often entirely appropriate. Too often doctors feel pressured to “do something” and interfere with this self-healing capacity.

      1. Yes, this is indisputable. But what is important to realise is that although our understanding of the placebo effect is still incomplete, we do not need to invoke magic or supernatural intervention as explanations. Belief, expectation and suggestion are mediated through physiological mechanisms. And I contend that this powerful placebo effect has been tapped into and often exploited by many providers of CAM. We have to figure out ethical ways of using the placebo effect.

  2. Several years ago my health was on a downward spiral, I was tired all the time, had permanent sinus pain, couldn’t breath through my nose most of the time, and had been diagnosed with rheumatoid arthritis. My Western doctors treated the symptoms, but when the medicine ended the symptoms came back worse. Out of desperation I tried naturopathy. They considered all of me not just the part that was hurting — they did not address the symptoms directly but a part (in my case my gut) that I would not have considered involved. In doing so they turned around the direction my health had been going in in a way Western medicine could not. I am now better than I was then and can self maintain an improved state of health. The Western approach was unable to resolve my issues and left me dependent on more and more drugs just to manage the symptoms. The naturopathic approach was able to effect a lasting improvement. It was more than a placebo effect or just the “art of medicine.”

    For want of a better word they addressed “lifestyle” issues. For me it involved treating my “lifestyle” to bring lasting improvements to my health rather than the Western approach of treating the symptoms (with drugs) without addressing the underlying causes (thereby not resolving the issue).

    Consequently I feel both areas are needed for a more holistic health care system. It is not one or the other but both together that are needed. I wouldn’t go to a naturopath with a broken leg, but there is a niche to be filled for treating the more systemic health issues I was faced with that Western medicine is currently unable to address. This is because the Western approach only addresses the part of the “machine” that appears to need fixing without considering how that part connects to the whole being or why it “broke.” In DP terms the Western approach ignores the give and receive relationship of the parts within the person and of the person with their surroundings.

    Though I totally agree that the art of medicine is severely lacking in the Western system.

  3. Hi Catriona,

    Thank you for an excellent article on the some of the differences between Western conventional and Eastern complementary medicine.

    I was introduced to this discussion by a Jewish woman, physician, clinical psychologist, acupuncturist, life coach, yoga practitioner, and the mother of my high school friend. This was at a time when acupuncture, pseudo-medicine and alternative Chinese medicine was regarded with fierce skepticism and with other impolite terms. She was known by her patients as Doctor Ehrlich, by her ER surgeon husband as Fran and by her five children as Mom. From your treatment of this topic, it would be fair to say you and Fran would have had a lot in common. Well-being and health can be framed in technical and other non-technical language either as conventional and/or alternative types. Both types of medicine have their area of expertise, application, effectiveness and varying degrees of mystery — trust in God. It’s in this latter area where religion, spiritualism and a Mother’s touch come into play.

  4. I respectfully disagree with Catriona’s thesis, that Western medicine is superior because of evidence-based trials. Who pays for these trials? Only pharmaceutical companies, with an interest in promoting new drugs. So CAM trials don’t happen because there is not enough money to do them.

    Watch Ty Bollinger’s “Truth about Cancer” video series, and you will understand how many doctors and researchers used CAM methods to heal patients where conventional medicine failed or sent them home to die!

    On a personal note, my wife had moderately high blood pressure. Three doctors she visited prescribed blood pressure medication rather than lifestyle changes. All three different pills made her sick after one day so she stopped taking them. We researched on the Internet and found many ways to lower her blood pressure. If doctors can’t treat a common and dangerous condition, such as high blood pressure, how can one trust them to heal more complex illnesses?

    I agree with David Burton’s comments. I think what Father wanted was for us to seek and combine the benefits of Eastern and Western medicine. I don’t think Western medicine needs more defenders. The mainstream media rarely exposes the problems. Eastern medicine emphasizes healing the person and their spirit as well as their body.

    Thank you for adding to this discussion. May God bless our efforts to heal each other.

  5. Thank you for your comments, Stephen.

    Yes, indeed pharmaceutical companies have a huge vested interest in sponsoring trials; furthermore results and statistics can be cleverly manipulated and presented to favour a desired outcome. However, hard evidence from large, well-done placebo controlled double blinded trials is hard evidence and scientific medicine is not afraid to stand up to scrutiny and modify its approach based on evidence from such trials. Many trials are independent of pharma funding — government bodies and academic institutions also promote and fund studies.

    Many CAM modalities have been around a long time and have been subjected to repeated clinical trials. Homeopathy has still to prove its efficacy beyond placebo. Your wife’s experience is a good example of the worst of Western medicine and why many are disillsioned and look elsewhere. A conversation about lifestyle is the very first step in addressing the presentation of many if not most diseases.

    To reformulate and reiterate: I do not think that TF was referring to any content or practice when he spoke about Eastern medicine. We expect too much of him. TF was an expert on love, not on medicine. What is more desirable than good evidence-based medicine delivered with common sense, heart and compassion?

  6. I defer to my superiors in all matters, but having said that, consider myself nothing more or less than a continuing patient, patient (usually) within the scope of all that life has thrown at me. As the old proverb says, “Physician heal thyself,” etc. And East and West do meet, often; particularly in our movement. Complementary? Well, that shall ever remain…somewhat, at least…a mystery. Let us hope so, at least.

    Did come across this interesting site amidst my brief reflections on this immensely important topic tonight.

    – East: Mind-body is one, and West: Mind/body split
    – East: Subtle body, and West: Physical body
    – East: Induce mind-body self-healing, and West: Give mind/body what it lacks

    “Exploring Eastern similarities with Western technology may suggest very different and perhaps more effective treatments.”

  7. Thank you, Catriona, for raising this topic. At the University of Bridgeport we have programs in chiropractic medicine, nutrition, acupuncture, and other medicine often referred to as Eastern or alternative medicine. I think most practitioners there would view their teaching as both art and “evidence-based.” I think the idea of “evidence-based” gets murky as you move from completely understood causes and consequences to “things that seem to work” but we don’t know why.

    For example, Spanish hospitals in the 17th century had higher surgical success because they washed their surgery walls and tools with lavender. This is a natural disinfectant. They knew nothing about bacteria, but they used this practice because it seemed to work better. Today, we can understand why.

    Traditions develop when things work, and this is part of the social adaptation that results often from trial and error. On the other hand, bloodletting seems to be based on a belief about blood pressure that isn’t evidence-based, except for the case of a concussion where relieving pressure on the brain by drilling a hole can save a life. I think much Eastern medicine might be evidence-based more like the use of lavender and less based on the type of reasoning used in Western medicine. Therefore one good approach would be to use proven Western medicine when possible, and use tradition as a secondary approach when it has not been proven false or known to be based purely on arbitrary belief.

  8. This article likely reflects how Eastern medicine is understood by governments, insurance companies and the general public in the West. Putting folk and herbal medicine, Eastern medicine, and anything fuzzy into one basket is highly problematic. Yet, it probably reflects the current state of medical understanding in the West.

    In East Asian countries, Eastern medicine is clearly distinguished from folk remedies. Practitioners of Eastern medicine are required to have an M.D., and Eastern medicinal sellers must have a pharmacology license.

    In Korea and China, there are two separate M.D. licenses, Eastern Medicine and Western Medicine. In Japan, all Eastern M.D.s are required to have a regular (Western) M.D. license. Insurance companies also cover Eastern medicine as well as Western medicine (although not everything). The effects of Eastern medicine are not psychological but based on testing and physiological evidence.

    I think the lack of regulatory mechanisms (M.D. licensing and insurance coverage) in the West has left the whole area fuzzy. From such fuzziness, all kinds of speculation and beliefs are propagated.

    The distinctive characteristics of East and West in medicine are not that of “psychological” vs. “scientific” but a different scientific approach.

  9. Medicine, whether Eastern or Western, has never cured anyone. Only our God-given, inherent physical and spiritual attributes with names such as “immune system” can cure.

    Doctors can assist our healing, such as when a surgeon re-attaches a severed fingertip, or a spiritual healer introduces positive imagery to brighten our outlook, or a chiropractor adjusts a misalignment, or a dietician encourages us to eat foods that are less processed and closer to nature, or a physical therapist suggests fresh air and clean water and exercise, or a massage therapist or acupuncturist intervenes in our energy flow, or an herbalist introduces us to new compounds, or a doctor prescribes chemotherapy that kills our cancer cells so that, in some cases, the remaining healthy cells can take up our healing, and so on. (On the other hand, even Western medical researchers now recognize the efficacy of fasting as an adjunct to chemotherapy — or fasting alone — in cancer treatment).

    In reality, I would imagine that each of us, whether the author of this article, or fellow commenters, is likely in agreement with the total picture that is emerging from this healthy discussion. Father’s speech to health professionals emphasized respect for each approach and emphasized listening to each approach in order to put together a complete and comprehensive healing approach.

  10. I appreciate the responses to my article.

    Gordon’s citation of the use of lavender is an excellent example of “things that seem to work but we don’t know why” shifting into accepted medical practice. The key factor is that the observable efficacy lay in solid science (cf. my example of the use of citrus fruit and scurvy).

    To respond to your comments, Dr. Noda, I understand that you may be offended by the implied superiority of Western medicine. I tried to make it clear than any medical practice — regardless of its geographical origins — as long as it is scientfically and evidence-based and tested, is acceptable. Your statement about a “different scientific approach” puzzles me. The scientific approach is universal; it mandates that theories and ideas are tested and validated. Truth and principles are unchanging and absolute, although our understanding thereof is constantly developing. It is not psychology versus science, but science versus non-science.

  11. I have been studying and practicing Tai-Chi for over eight years. In it, we practice meditation, movement and breathing. As an “Eastern approach,” it is preventative in nature, but the results are measurable and noticeable. We have women and men in their later 80s that are mobile, live on their own and have few, if any chronic health problems. They look old, but in terms of overall health, they are exceptional.

    Good posture, continuous movement, learning to breathe deeply, and meditation all produce these results. Now, if I broke my arms or had cancer diagnosed, I would want the option of the best medical science. But, to maintain overall health, preventative health practices can and do provide results and have for thousands of years. As a good source, for those interested in the medical benefits of Tai-Chi, I recommend this book. The author is an MD at Harvard and a teacher of the discipline. And here is another good article about Tai-Chi.

  12. Dear Catriona,

    I am happy to know about you, and to read your thoughts about Eastern and Western medicine. And I am especially happy that you pointed me toward True Father’s talk to Health Professionals in 1987. I found his talk especially confirming.

    In 2010, True Father purchased, on the same day, property in Las Vegas for what has become Wongu University of Oriental Medicine and the International Peace Education Center. True Father called five Korean brothers to Las Vegas and commissioned them to create a university. He explained that he wanted them to found an Eastern Medical College, a Western Medical College, an East-West Integrative Hospital, and a full university outstanding especially in international politics and international business. A university that promotes health, wealth and peace.

    True Father told the five brothers they could begin with any of those programs that they wanted. So, after conferring with each other, they decided to begin with the Eastern Medical College, as one of the brothers already promoted the Happy Health machine developed based on the principles of acupuncture. From that beginning, Wongu University of Oriental Medicine is now accredited to award a master’s degree in oriental medicine, herbology and acupuncture. Our graduates (the first student will graduate this spring) will practice as Doctors of Oriental Medicine in Nevada.

    In True Father’s speech, he emphasized the importance of the doctor being a spiritually elevated person, a monk. Last term, I had the good fortune to teach the Asian philosophy course at Wongu University. The practice of Oriental Medicine arose from the Asian philosophies. We read from the East Asian scriptures: I-Ching, Tao Te Ching, Buddha’s teachings, and Confucius’s Analects. Our students are remarkably mature and accomplished. In my class of 21 students, 5 are medical doctors, 2 RN’s, 1 a naturopathic doctor, 4 massage therapists, 1 a hypnotist, 1 nutritionist, and the rest from a variety of fields. And they come from every race and continent: Asia, South America, Europe/Russia, and the USA. We experienced the spiritual reality of those religions and philosophies, and how important they are to understanding and practicing Oriental medicine. We agreed that the person you are, your spirituality, is the most important factor in healing a patient.

    We are convinced that Eastern and Western medicine are complementary and work best when integrated. They are two different views of the body, person, nature and the divine. They each have something to offer the other. It is not one or the other. The future of medicine is integrative.

    At Wongu University, we have a college classroom building, a health clinic for internship and treatment of the public, and we have just founded a research center. I hope you will have an opportunity to visit our college. I think that we are moving firmly to position spirituality at the center of our medical practice, just as True Father taught in the speech you referred to.

    Daniel Davies, Ph.D.
    President and CEO, Wongu University of Oriental Medicine
    Las Vegas, NV
    (UTS Class of ’78)

    1. Daniel,

      Should not UTS and The Cornerstone and other organizations provide feature articles on your work at Wongu University? I did not even know about it and am glad to hear that you are heading up the graduate program. As always, advertising and PR are essential to greater enrollment and success!

      1. Donna,

        I have been feeling that now is the right time to promote Wongu University of Oriental Medicine throughout our worldwide movement.

        We recently received I-20 authorization from the Department of Homeland Security, permitting our international students to receive visas, and Title IV approval from the Department of Education, allowing students to receive federally-backed loans. On top of that, we have candidacy accreditation status from the national oriental medicine accreditation association, ACAOM, as well as full licensing from the Nevada Committee of Post Secondary Education. So we can award degrees.

        Suggestions on publications to submit articles? UTS and The Cornerstone; which other publications do you recommend?

  13. Thank you, Daniel. I saw your information booth when I attended the WFWP conference in Las Vegas in 2012. It would indeed be interesting to see what you have developed.

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