Civil society organizations highlight the essential role of traditional, complementary and integrative health in addressing global health challenges, and opportunities for its integration into health systems
WHO Director-General, Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus and a group of WHO senior officials met with representatives of civil society on 3 July, to discuss their priorities on traditional, complementary and integrative medicine, in the lead up to the WHO Traditional Medicine Global Summit on 17 and 18 August 2023 in Gandhinagar, Gujarat, India.
The virtual dialogue was coordinated by the People’s Declaration for Traditional, Complementary and Integrative Healthcare, a worldwide civil society coalition of users and practitioners of traditional, complementary and integrative healthcare. Representatives of more than 300 civil society organizations (CSOs) and over 600 people were in attendance, bringing the full force of knowledge and expertise on traditional, complementary and integrative health (TCIH) to the forefront.
In his opening remarks, Dr Tedros said: “Traditional, complementary and integrative health is rooted in the knowledge and resources of communities. For millions of people around the world, it is their first stop for health and well-being, and an integral part of their health system. It is for precisely these reasons that dialogues with civil society organizations are so important to WHO, as we shape our guidance and policy recommendations for countries.”
WHO has started the development of the new traditional medicine strategy 2025-2034 as requested by its Member States at the World Health Assembly in May 2023, during which they have also extended WHO traditional medicine strategy: 2014-2023 for another two years, until 2025 Suggestions and proposals from the civil society will contribute to this important task, and will also inform the work of the WHO Global Center for Traditional Medicine to harness the potential of traditional medicine from across the world to improve the health of people and the planet. Furthermore, the dialogue will contribute to WHO work on traditional, complementary and integrative medicine (TCIM), which seeks to respond to requests from countries for evidence and data to inform policies and practice, global standards and regulation to ensure safety, quality, equitable access and use, and support for scientific, innovation and technological advances in traditional medicine practices.
In the dialogue, CSOs stressed that traditional and complementary systems offer a holistic understanding of the human being and its interconnectedness with the world, and as such, can contribute to a positive vision of health that integrates the physical, the mental, the spiritual, and a social well-being. Recalling the Declaration of Astana and its specific references to the role of traditional knowledge in strengthening primary health care and improving health outcomes, CSOs stressed that the key question is how to integrate and harness TCIH in a way that makes health services more health promoting and more in balance with the health of our planet.
Patients are demanding real choice in health care with a diversity of approaches that reflect and respect the individual, their culture and their beliefs and that are fully integrated into health care. When the health care services match the desire and choice of patients, this results in better health outcomes and greater satisfaction by patients. CSOs pointed to insufficient integration of TCIH into policy, especially in providing universal health coverage, citing the example of millions of TCIH practitioners and providers in the world, who often make health care accessible and affordable to many people.
Speaking about research, CSOs stressed that although there is an established evidence base for TCIH, integration into health systems has not happened yet and lack of evidence is often cited as a barrier. CSOs supported a dramatic increase in research activity, commensurate with TCIH use, and called for a more complex research agenda, to include products, practices and practitioners.
CSO representatives also spoke about the importance of training and continuous professional development of TCIH practitioners, and about specific registration, pathways and monitoring of TCIH products to ensure safety effectiveness and accessibility for all.
TCIH – which includes the diversity and complexity of Indigenous knowledge and traditional, complementary and integrative medicine systems – shows how the philosophical differences in practicing medicine need to be respected, a speaker said. Indigenous knowledge must be protected, and Indigenous voices included, leading the process and upholding Indigenous world view where the collective is considered more important than the individual.
“WHO respects the vast Indigenous knowledge systems and traditional complementary, integrative health approaches that have evolved over centuries in a diversity of contexts, in countries across the world”, said Dr. Shyama Kuruvilla, WHO lead for the Global Traditional Medicine Center and Summit. “WHO’s role as the lead United Nations’ technical agency on health is to strengthen the evidence base and the data to support safe, scalable, effective, equitable and optimal use, and to support equitable sharing of benefits.”
Dr. Kim Sungchol, head of WHO Traditional, Complementary and Integrative Medicine (TCIM) Unit said: “Given the importance of the person-centred and integrative healthcare, WHO has already started working on developing policy guidelines on the integration of TCI into healthcare delivery systems. The objective is to help and support Member States in formulating policies and programs to maximize the potential contribution of TCI to achieve the highest possible level of health and wellbeing of the people, in line with their own contexts and realities.”
“Some of the civil society’s asks – accelerating research agenda on TCIM, integration into health systems or regulation of TCIM products – are already embedded in WHO work, both in the TCIM strategy and in our operational and work planning as we go forward”, noted Dr Bruce Aylward, Assistant Director-General, Universal Health Coverage and Life Course. “After COVID-19, people value their health in a different way, and this represents an opportunity.”
This virtual dialogue was part of a series of CSO Dialogues with the WHO Director-General to better understand civil society priorities and strengthen the important relationship between WHO and civil society organizations. Since October 2020, when the Dialogues first started, 16 have been organized on topics ranging from gender, youth, healthy aging, social participation and accountability, climate and health, and more.
The Dialogues are CSO led – civil society sets the agenda and presents their questions to WHO. Their objectives are to find concrete proposals and solutions to support the achievement of WHO’s Triple Billion targets and to accelerate the attainment of Sustainable Development Goals.