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Feature Traditional Medicine

India’s struggle to integrate traditional medicine into modern healthcare

BMJ 2024; 384 doi: (Published 05 March 2024) Cite this as: BMJ 2024;384:q268
  1. Geetanjali Krishna, freelance journalist
  1. Delhi
  1. geetanjalikr{at}

India finds itself at the forefront of a push to incorporate traditional healers into an overstretched medical system. Missteps and a constant battle against a billion dollar wellness industry have led to legal skirmishes and rising tensions, Geetanjali Krishna reports

In August 2023 India hosted the World Health Organization’s first ever Traditional Medicine Global Summit. Thirteen countries, including Brazil, Cuba, India, and Mexico, disclosed that they had a plan for integrating traditional, complementary, and integrative medicine (TCIM) systems1 into their national health service delivery.

Back in 2005, 45 of WHO’s 194 member states had national policies on TCIM2; in 2023 this was around 100.3 TCIM treatments are part of WHO’s essential medicine list and essential health service packages. They are covered by national health insurance schemes in several countries, including many US states and Canadian provinces, where naturopathic doctors4 can make diagnoses, order tests, use medical technology, write prescription drugs, and perform minor surgeries.

A major reason for this trend is patchy health coverage due to a shortage of health workers. In India 71% of the population live in rural areas, but only 36% of its health workforce is located there. In such areas healthcare leans heavily on traditional medicine, an approach backed up by government policy. However, challenges arise because traditional medical treatments are based on beliefs that often run often counter to modern medical models—and because traditional medicine is a lucrative industry in itself. In India the billion dollar TCIM market is reportedly pricing patients out of treatments,5 and tensions between medical doctors and alternative therapists are boiling over into legal action.

Health or business?

In 2005, in a bid to tackle a severe staff shortage in rural areas, India’s National Rural Health Mission made the case6 for involving the Ayush ministry—an acronym of …

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