Despite the unsubstantiated science behind it, the Ayurveda medicine system was granted a vote of confidence by the Swiss government, swissinfo.ch reported on May 12. According to updates made to the Swiss Regulation of Complementary Medicine, Ayurveda practitioners will now be able to obtain a national diploma after passing a state-administered exam.
The updates followed intense lobbying after Ayurveda wasn’t included in a list of alternative therapies that could be covered by Swiss health insurance providers in 2005. They were anthroposophic medicine, phylotherapy, neural therapies, traditional Chinese medicine and homeopathy. Until 2017, they will be included under basic health insurance packages on a trial basis.
Among others, anthroposophic medicine involves using mistletoe to cure cancer while neural therapies are based on injecting anaesthetics near nerve-centres. Phylotherapy is herbal medicine.
Ayurveda proponents had been asked to wait until 2017 before being considered again, according to the Swiss Professional Association for Ayurveda Practitioners and Therapists. Instead, the Ayurveda lobby had worked to induct it under the national diploma program.
Now, practitioners without a medical degree can obtain a professional qualification through the exam and gain legitimacy in the eyes of the health insurance sector. More, practitioners of three other systems of alternative medicine are now eligible for the exam: Chinese and European traditional medicine, and homeopathy.
Although seekers of alternative therapies can now pay a visit to someone who has passed a national exam instead of some other arbitrary test, it is Ayurveda’s dubious company that belies the credibility of the Swiss government’s decision. Homeopathy amongst them has been widely discredited for being pseudoscience and international government support has been largely withheld.
Without focusing on a single system, scientists believe the biggest effect of the Swiss government’s decision to recognise and fund alternative medicine – as opposed to evidence-based medicine – will be the credibility it will accrue without having presented objective proofs of effectiveness. Even if the Swiss government has said it will conduct independent investigations into whether the claims of alternative systems are dependable, many feel political pressure might lead to evaluators registering false-positives.
The situation parallels one in India, where Ayurveda has a market worth Rs.8,000 crore (2013) but is backed by research or data that is neither coherent nor of quality at par with that behind allopathic medicine, attributes that do nothing to allay the deep-seated and prevalent prejudice against non-Western medicine. Further, the Central Council for Research into Ayurvedic Sciences – which coordinates pharmacological research into alternative medicine systems in the country – does not conduct placebo-controlled clinical trials, the touchstone of medical research.
Simultaneously, the Council of Scientific and Industrial Research continues to support research into areas like ayurgenomics – the use of ayurvedic principles to determine genetic predispositions to some diseases. Ayurgenomics in particular featured prominently in the manifesto that the BJP put out ahead of the 2014 Lok Sabha elections, and which the party has continued to unabashedly support since it came to power. The result is the risk of legitimate practitioners of Ayurveda eschewing rigour in favour of political timing. The effect of political pressure is often to make the two indistinguishable.
In fact, the 2005 decision in Switzerland followed by a referendum in 2009, when not any scientific committee but 67 per cent of the Swiss electorate voted to include the five alternative systems under the basic health insurance package. In response to the verdict, Ignazio Cassis, then vice-chair of the Swiss Medical Association, had told New Scientist in 2011, “This isn’t science, it’s Swiss politics.”
As of 2011, Switzerland had 17,200 registered practitioners of complementary and alternative medicine, the most per capita in the world.