The Role of Traditional Health Practitioners in Modern Health Care Systems
Background: In Africa and much of the developing world, 80% of the population uses traditional medicines to meet their primary health care (PHC) needs. These needs, particularly in the rural areas, are met by services provided by traditional health practitioners (THPs), who are members of the community. Their services are the only available, accessible, and affordable sources of health care. Traditional health care, in Africa, in spite of its deep rootedness, has unresolved issues of efficacy and safety which hinder its potential benefits from being safely and effectively harnessed. The United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals (SDG) call for universal health coverage (UHC) as the center of the overall health goal. Certainly professionalized THPs whose practices are fully documented can play a very important role in this goal. Applying principles of evidence-based medicine (EBM) to African traditional medical practice (TMP), and indeed to any culture’s TMP, is vital for the practice to gain acceptance by Western-trained healthcare providers. EBM is a 178necessary step when exploring African TMP as a cost-effective treatment and management option to help tackle healthcare issues such as functional diseases, chronic illnesses in aging populations, and rising healthcare costs.
Relevance : It is now 40 years since the Alma-Ata Declaration on Primary Health Care (PHC) officially recognized the important role that traditional medicine and its practitioners can make in the healthcare delivery system. In 2000, the WHO also recognized THPs as an important resource in achieving healthcare for all. Policy makers still need to recognize the importance of THPs when re-engineering PHC, in spite of what has been achieved so far. By adapting WHO tools for institutionalization of traditional medicine, national policies can, among other things, facilitate:
the strengthening of multidisciplinary and intersectoral mechanisms to support national and regulatory frameworks
the collaboration between traditional health practitioners and Western-trained healthcare providers, most of whom work in the current healthcare systems
the inclusion of traditional medicine research and development on the national health research agenda in order to produce scientific evidence on the quality, safety, and efficacy of traditional medicines and practices that policy makers can utilize
the intensification of integration of certain aspects of traditional health/medical practices into training programs of relevant institutions
Policy makers should not just pay lip service to SDGs. SDGs recognize that eradicating poverty and inequality, creating inclusive economic growth, and preserving the planet are inextricably linked – not only to each other – but also to population health, and that the relationships between each of these elements are dynamic and reciprocal.