The Interconnectedness of the Biomedical Model
and Alternative Medicine

For the past 150 years, physicians have struggled with discovering and revamping treatments for patients. The biomedical model was born.

As medical discoveries evolved, doctors began to lose sight of the physician-patient relationship. Thereafter, patients became less enthusiastic about visiting doctors who were not empathetic to the patient’s feelings. Patients needed their doctors to care for their mind, body, and spirit.

In alternative medicine, physician-patient relationships existed and were nurtured without the patients’ request. Without the development of the biomedical model, alternative medicines would not have been introduced, and the inception of physician-patient relationship would have died.

The History of the Biomedical Model
The biomedical model was used to diagnose patients during the mid-nineteenth century. Today, doctors are approaching patient care with an understanding attitude towards the patient’s needs. However, before the nineteenth century, medical schools were unaffiliated with universities and anyone could attend so long as they paid a small fee. The local physicians taught courses for 3-6 months. During the course, exams were not administered, and students could not practice their craft on patients—this was not allowed.

President Charles Eliot, of Harvard University, implemented the German university laboratory-based teaching method into the new medical program at Harvard. “The scientific and laboratory-based teaching method was used to identify microbial causes of infectious diseases” (Dacher, 2001). President Charles Eliot changed what most schools knew as an “easy” medical program to a militant regime. With this new profound laboratory-based teaching, doctors inherited the patient’s disease. The medical movement voluntarily changed some medical schools, while other medical schools refused. When some medical schools refused to implement this new model, Andrew Carnegie, founder of the Carnegie Foundation, funded a study of medical education by Abraham Flexner in 1907 (Dacher, 2001). Flexner created a report informing all “sorry” state medical schools to comply with the new standards or be shut down.

A new appreciation was cultivated in the medical arena. Scientists began to explore microbial causes in relation to infectious diseases. Finally, there was a medical breakthrough when Salvarsan emerged, the first anti-bacterial drug. Since Abraham Flexner precipitated a new model, medical education transformed into a well-structured discipline—biomedicine. The Biomedical model is intriguing, however, the model lacks a very important component—the physician-patient relationship.

The History of Alternative Medicines
Alternative medicines are frequently used to help heal the mind, body, and spirit. Alternative medicines fall under the umbrella of Complementary, Alternative, and Integrative Medicine. Primarily, alternative medicines base themselves on traditional medicines, home remedies, and spiritual beliefs, and are open to new ideas. Unlike the biomedical model, the alternative medical approach hones in on the individual, still treating the whole person, while maintaining a physician-patient relationship.

Additionally, alternative medicines are ubiquitous in all cultures. Ancient civilizations, such as the Mayans, used herbal medicines to cure diseases and sicknesses. Chinese civilizations thought tiger parts had medicinal properties, such as pain killers and aphrodisiacs. Native Americans routinely took sweat baths to purge toxins from their body. In Africa, a medicinal cure, pygeum (Prunus Africana), has spread to European nations as a treatment for mild-to-moderate benign prostatic hyperplasia (Helwig, 2001). Ancient civilizations perused alternative medicines and considered how these remedies could treat a disease while also caring for the mind, body, and soul.

Medical researchers are discovering acute to chronic diseases every decade. Simultaneously, alternative medicines are evolving. Ground breaking scientific findings with alternative medicines are implemented into patients’ lives who suffer from acute-to-chronic disease. For example, let me use the Odone family and their search for a treatment to save their son’s life as an illustration.

Michaela and Augosto Odone stopped at nothing to save their son, Lorenzo Michael Murphy Odone, from a rare inherited nerve disorder, adrenoleukodystrophy (ALD). Little boys between ages five and ten who inherit ALD gradually go blind, deaf, mute, and eventually die. These gradual effects take place due to the deterioration of myelin. After diagnosis, the rare disease takes the patient’s life in as little as a few months or up to twenty-four months.

In their quest for a cure, Michaela and Augusto persisted. The Odones tried trial-run experiments such as immunosuppression, tried eliminating foods from Lorenzo’s diet, and kept Lorenzo in hospitals for weeks. Nothing seemed to work and Lorenzo’s health continued to deteriorate every day. The Odones realized the doctors stopped looking at Lorenzo, and just focused on the disease. “This may well be a major passage to them—a turning point—in their lives, even though to you it’s another day in your professional life” (Desmond & Copeland, 2000, p.188). The doctors and specialists’ skepticism did not stymie the Odones’ optimism on prolonging Lorenzo’s life. The Odones knew that “ALD is a complex disease, marked by abnormal blood levels of compounds known as VLCFAs; very-long-chain saturated fatty acids” (Adler & Hager, 1993). An enzyme in the body creates them out of harmless fatty-acids, but in healthy people, there is a second enzyme that breaks down these VLCFAs. However, ALD patients lack the second enzyme, creating a blockage that deteriorates the myelin sheath that insulates nerve fibers, gradually destroying all nerves, and ending in death.

The Odones refused to accept the prognosis and started researching biomedicine. The Odones knew this journey would be long and stressful, but hopefully the end result would be rewarding—Lorenzo’s life. The Odones mastered the field on human lipid metabolism. They spent months in the library researching scholarly articles about human lipid metabolism and came up with a theory to cure Lorenzo’s disease. Theoretically, the Odones “sought to cut off the VLCFAs at the source, where they are synthesized in the body. The enzyme that makes VLCFAs is an infinite supply. If you could keep the enzyme busy making harmless compounds, it would not make as much of the dangerous ones” (Adler & Hager, 1993). The Odones held the first world conference of ALD experts, and found a company in England, Croda Universal Ltd. that was thrilled to test out the theory of extracting rapeseed oil and other vegetable oils used as a dietary supplement in ALD patients. The theory was successful. The dietary supplement brought Lorenzo’s abnormal blood levels to normal, as well as other ALD patients. The tenacious attitudes expressed by the Odones lead to a cure for ALD patients, and possibly, multiple sclerosis.

Without the biomedical model, the Odones would not have found a cure for ALD with alternative medicines—Lorenzo’s Oil. The biomedical model was created to diagnose diseases, but the model lacked a significant focus, the patient. In Lorenzo’s case, the biomedicine perspective solely did not cure his disease; alternative medicine was the answer for curing ALD. The doctors on Lorenzo’s case lost sight of the patient and focused on the disease as an experiment. The physician-patient relationship did not exist. However, the Odone family was the catalyst to help connect all three methods: the biomedical model, alternative medicines, and physician-patient relationships.

Physicians take the Hippocratic Oath to protect and care for their patients. To honor this oath, doctors should do what is best for the patient by using multiple models in a combined effort to provide patients with the best holistic care.

by Danielle King
Adler, J. , & Hager, M. (1993, January 1). Loving lorenzo. Newsweek, 121 (4), 48-50.
Dacher, E. (2001). The development of an integrated medical model toward a postmodern medicine. In M. S. Micozzi (Ed.), Fundamentals of complementary and alternative medicine (pp. 57-70). Churchill Livingstone.
Desmond, J. & Copeland, R. L. (2000). Communicating with today’s patient. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass: A Wiley Company.
Helwig, D. (2001). Traditional African medicine. In The Encyclopedia of Alternative Medicine Online.

Danielle King is obtaining her degree in Public Health from Arcadian University in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Danielle is an avid traveler and spent the last two years teaching English in Korea and Vietnam. She graduated from Berea College with a Bachelors of Arts in Child and Family Studies.