Alternatives to drugs

Manufactured pharmaceuticals dominate treatment, but some people are seeking alternatives

Humans have used medications to treat ill health for millennia. Pills are convenient, can be made and distributed easily, and provide a standard solution that is known to work (though not on everyone).

However, some people argue that the emphasis on drugs reflects the dominance of the pharmaceutical industry, which is geared up to produce packaged pharmaceuticals and puts huge sums into marketing its products. Other possible treatment options may be unfairly neglected.

Surgery is another medical option, but is generally a last resort, when pharmaceutical routes have been exhausted or no drug treatment exists.

Prevention is likely to be increasingly important, particularly as the genetic contributions to common diseases are discovered and individual susceptibilities are identified. A sceptic might say we already know how to stay healthy – eat a balanced diet, drink in moderation, take exercise and don’t smoke – but it’s possible that certain dietary regimes might benefit some people.

Vaccines are another highly successful prevention strategy. After several years of stagnation, vaccines are a growing industry. Some cancers are caused by viruses, and those can be vaccinated against. One of the most famous cases is the human papilloma virus vaccine that’s being used to prevent cervical cancer.

Psychotherapies (talking therapies) have developed significantly in the past few decades. The evidence for cognitive behavioural therapy, which attempts to tackle patients’ negative ways of thinking and behaving, shows the approach to be effective in a range of conditions, including eating disorders, depression and post-traumatic stress disorder. Such a treatment for bulimia was the first psychotherapy approved by the National Institute for Health and Clinical Excellence (NICE). However, there is a shortage of trained providers and psychotherapy is perceived as costly, so its use remains limited.

A potential therapy of the future is transcranial magnetic stimulation. This non-invasive technique uses magnetic fields to disrupt nerve impulses in localised areas of the brain. Experimental work has shown encouraging results in its use in depression, bipolar disorder, schizophrenia and other conditions.

Of potentially wider significance is the use of stem cells. It’s hoped that stem cells could be used to repair or replace damaged tissue: some people advocate moving quickly to use stem cells clinically, whereas others urge caution and argue that more needs to be learned about their biology. When initial speculation emerged about the potential therapeutic advantages of stem cells, only small biotech firms pursued the search for therapies. However, early clinical testing has given positive results for treating heart failure. Now many companies are looking to tap into this potentially lucrative market.

About this resource

This resource was first published in ‘Drug Development’ in January 2008 and reviewed and updated in August 2014.

Psychology, Medicine
Drug Development
Education levels:
16–19, Continuing professional development