Unlocking potential: First World Health Organization Summit on Traditional Medicine


The World Health Organization (WHO) has held its first ever summit on traditional medicine. The two-day event, co-organized with the Government of India, is being held in Gandhinagar, India, and aims to explore opportunities to integrate traditional medicine into conventional health care. With billions of people already relying on traditional medicines, it is crucial to scientifically validate their use and collaborate on their integration into mainstream health systems.

WHO’s interest in traditional medicine is not new. Last year, the organization established the Global Centre for Traditional Medicine in Jamnagar with generous funding of $250 million from India. In addition, in 2019, WHO will include some traditional medicine in its influential International Classification of Diseases-11, which is widely used by health professionals to diagnose diseases.

Shyama Kuruvilla, head of WHO’s Global Center for Traditional Medicine and Summit, emphasizes the need to explore the integration of traditional medicine into conventional healthcare. However, some researchers remain skeptical about the possible outcomes of the summit. Edzard Ernst, a complementary medicine researcher at the University of Exeter (UK), expresses concern that the meeting may result in empty rhetoric rather than concrete progress.

WHO currently recognizes a wide range of disciplines as traditional and complementary medicine, including Ayurveda, yoga, homeopathy and complementary therapies. For many people in some countries, these practices are the only source of health interventions and services. Recognizing this, the summit aims to bring together participants from all WHO regions, representatives of indigenous communities, traditional medicine practitioners, and policy, data and science experts.

WHO’s approach to traditional medicine is evidence-based. WHO guidelines and policies include only interventions or systems that have been rigorously tested in randomized control trials or systematic reviews. This practice will continue for traditional medicine, ensuring that only evidence-based practices are promoted. Kuruvilla also emphasizes the need for global standards in the natural cosmetics and herbal medicine industries, which generate billions of dollars in revenue. In addition, for holistic interventions such as yoga, researchers must develop scientific methods that are culturally and contextually sensitive, requiring an interdisciplinary approach to research.

Lisa Susan Wieland, director of the Cochrane Center for Complementary Medicine at the University of Maryland School of Medicine, serves as an external advisor to the summit. She emphasizes the importance of improving the quality and quantity of research on traditional medicine to determine its safety and efficacy. Much progress has been made in the field over the past 15 years, with more and more studies emerging. However, further advances are needed to provide conclusive evidence for traditional treatment systems.

The first WHO summit on traditional medicine marks a significant step towards integrating traditional practices into mainstream health care. Despite lingering skepticism, it provides an opportunity for experts from different fields to come together and explore the potential of traditional medicine. Through rigorous research and collaboration, we hope to unlock the full potential of these age-old practices and improve health care worldwide.

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