The institution of medicine is responsible for defining and treating physical and mental illnesses among members of a society. The goal of a society’s medical establishment is to promote health, the total well-being of its people. The nature of both health and medicine in a given society are culturally determined.
Definitions of illness vary widely from society to society. Societies attach different values to conditions that people worldwide experience, and as such, they treat those conditions differently, or not at all. In addition, societies have vastly differing views on the nature and origin of both physical and mental illness.
The institution of medicine must not only define illness but also figure out how to cure it. The acceptance of a cure depends on how that society views the illness. In the West, illnesses are thought to originate primarily from physical sources, and doctors use biomedical or surgical cures to treat them. Other cultures consider illnesses punishment for certain deeds or curses that are put on individuals, so other methods of curing the condition, such as incantations or folk remedies, are more common.
The symptoms and origins of a mental illness can be as varied as those of a physical illness. In the West, hearing voices or hallucinating are generally viewed as symptoms of a mental illness, such as schizophrenia. In other societies, these symptoms might instead indicate a religious experience, and the afflicted individual may not be seen as mentally ill. Instead, he or she could be viewed as enlightened or special in a positive way.
What Americans consider “medical treatment” is actually a fairly new approach to health care. Before the nineteenth century, any number of people might be called upon to treat a sick person: herbalists, druggists, midwives, even barbers (in the middle ages, barbers became skilled at bloodletting). Today, most Americans seek medical treatment from trained, certified medical doctors who focus on treating their particular illnesses and symptoms. This modern, scientific medical practice has been remarkably effective at saving people’s lives. Women and children in particular have benefited, and rates of maternal death in childbirth and infant mortality have plummeted since the turn of the twentieth century.
Still, the scientific approach has its drawbacks. Practitioners tend to focus on only one part of the patient at a time and don’t try to see the “big picture” of patient health or ask questions about the patient’s diet, exercise habits, or emotional well-being, all of which might influence treatment.
Once scientific medicine became dominant in industrialized countries, practitioners of traditional forms of medicine, such as midwives, acupuncturists, and herbalists, were pushed to the fringe of the medical establishment, their work dismissed as quackery. But a growing body of evidence suggests that holistic medicine, a medical approach that involves learning about a patient’s physical environment and mental status, may be just as effective as scientific medicine for some illnesses. More and more medical doctors are opening themselves to the possibility of a balance between holistic and scientific medicine.