India is faced with a highly complex scenario. On the one hand, there is the unfinished agenda of under-nutrition and communicable diseases, on the other, the burden of non-communicable ailments is crippling the lives of millions. In fact, the World Health Organisation Report for 2018 highlights that non-communicable diseases account for 63 per cent of deaths in India.

This is an alarming statistic to say the least and it is unlikely that modern medicine alone can provide the solutions. Systematically promoting integrative medicine — an approach that combines modern medicine with alternative systems like Ayurveda and Yoga — is perhaps more crucial now than ever before.

Why integration?

Unlike modern medicine, alternative systems follow a more holistic approach, with the objective of promoting overall well-being instead of focussing on curing illness alone. Such an approach assumes even greater significance in the case of non-communicable diseases which are difficult to treat once they have developed into chronic conditions.

Internationally, greater scientific evidence is becoming available regarding the health impact of alternative systems of medicine, especially Yoga. For instance, a study conducted by Massachusetts General Hospital and the Benson-Henry Institute demonstrated that Yoga and meditation could result in a 43 per cent reduction in healthcare costs.

Apart from a rich heritage in traditional medicine, India has nearly eight lakh registered Ayurveda, Yoga, Unani, Siddha and Homoeopathy (AYUSH) practitioners whose services can be better utilised for delivering healthcare to the population.

While the demand for alternative systems of medicine has been on the rise, there is still some scepticism perhaps due to the paucity of large-scale studies in India demonstrating its effectiveness.

Moreover, the emphasis of AYUSH on overall well-being makes it less tangible compared to modern medicine which focusses on treating diseases.

Resistance of some modern medicine practitioners is another key roadblock.

The way forward?

In recent years, the government has taken several steps to promote AYUSH. A dedicated ministry was set up at the Central level in 2014. Additionally, mainstreaming AYUSH is a clearly stated policy objective under the National Health Policy, 2017. Another pioneering initiative is the establishment of a Centre for Integrative Medicine & Research by AIIMS, Delhi. Several union ministries also plan to set up AYUSH units in the hospitals operated by them.

Further, AYUSH is one of the 12 champion services sectors that the government seeks to promote by offering soft loans and interest subsidies to AYUSH establishments as well as allowing 100 per cent foreign direct investment.

There is, however, much to be done going forward. First, the co-location of AYUSH with facilities providing allopathic medicine needs to be ramped up considerably. The ‘Strategy for New India @ 75’ released by NITI Aayog recently sets out the explicit target of co-locating AYUSH services in at least 50 per cent of primary health centres, 70 per cent of community health centres and 100 per cent of district hospitals by 2022-23. Co-location must also be achieved in the 1.5 lakh health and wellness centres announced in Union Budget 2018-19.

Second, investments in AYUSH education and research need to be stepped up. Mechanisms should be identified for integrating modern medicine and AYUSH curricula at the undergraduate and postgraduate levels in educational institutions. In China, for instance, traditional medicine is already taught alongside Western medicine. Developing a credible research base is also critical as it will help to embed AYUSH within the overall framework of healthcare by addressing the lingering concerns around its effectiveness.

Third, a range of communication channels should be leveraged to popularise Ayurveda and Yoga and inform citizens about their preventive and curative properties. While Yoga has gained immensely in popularity as a form of exercise, the full range of physical and mental health benefits it can yield are still not widely appreciated.

Fourth, essential AYUSH medicines must be included in various national health programmes and guidelines should be developed for ensuring their quality.

The time is ripe to systematically promote and mainstream integrative medicine. We are faced with a dual disease burden on the one hand and have a rich history of traditional medicine to tap into, on the other. While the last few years have witnessed a number of enabling policy interventions, more needs to be done to reap the full benefits of integrative medicine.

The writers are Public Policy Specialist and Young Professional, respectively, NITI Aayog. The views are personal.