LONG before we learned about modern medicine, our ancestors have already designed tools and means to aid their sick people and have unlocked and deciphered the healing powers of the plants and herbs that surround them.

From simple tapal (patch) using leaves of tuba to hilot (traditional massage), aromatherapy and chiropractic, among others, it cannot be denied that Pinoys are accustomed to traditional and alternative medicine. In places where there are no doctors, most people rely on their alternative-medicine healers for immediate health solutions.

Traditional medicine as defined by the World health Organization is  “the sum total of the knowledge, skills, and practices based on the theories, beliefs, and experiences indigenous to different cultures, whether explicable or not, used in the maintenance of health as well as in the prevention, diagnosis, improvement or treatment of physical and mental illness.”

With these facts, former Health Secretary Juan Flavier in 1992, through the Department of Health, launched the alternative medicine program, which was institutionalized two years after a traditional medicine law was drafted.

However, it was former President Fidel V. Ramos who integrated the alternative and traditional medicine in the government’s health care delivery system when he signed into law Republic Act 8423, also known as the Traditional and Alternative Medicine Act of 1997, an Act creating the Philippine Institute of Traditional and Alternative Health Care (PITAHC) to accelerate the development of traditional and alternative health-care in the Philippines, providing for a traditional and alternative health care development fund and for other purposes.

It was also Flavier who sponsored the said Act.

As mandated in RA 8423, Pitahc will encourage scientific research on and develop traditional and alternative health-care systems that have direct impact on public health care; promote and advocate the use of traditional, alternative, preventive and curative health-care modalities that have been proven safe, effective, cost effective and consistent with government standards on medical practice; develop and coordinate skills-training courses for various forms of traditional and alternative health-care modalities; formulate standards, guidelines and codes of ethical practice appropriate for the practice of traditional and alternative health care, as well as in the manufacture, quality control and marketing of different traditional and alternative health-care materials, natural and organic products, for approval and adoption by the appropriate government agencies; formulate policies for the protection of indigenous and natural health resources and technology from unwarranted exploitation, for approval and adoption by the appropriate government agencies; formulate policies to strengthen the role of traditional and alternative health-care delivery system; and promote traditional and alternative health care in international and national conventions, seminars and meetings in coordination with the Department of Tourism, Duty Free Philippines Inc., Philippine Convention and Visitors Corp. and other tourism-related agencies, as well as non-governmental organizations and local government units.

The Philippines has several traditional health-care methods, and with more than 1,000 plants species that are believed to have medicinal properties, the birth of the Pitahc opened many doors of opportunities.

Numerous seminars, trainings and other educational talks about alternative and traditional medicine were conducted. Research and development of products made from herbs and plants were also carried out.

The institution is also successful in publishing books that collated all the medicinal plants that can be found in the Philippines. A number of researches about the common medicinal herbs were also conducted to better identify their uses and the benefits they provide to users.

The herbal medicine is a $100-billion industry and is growing continually, as many people around the world are adapting natural medicines. Nonchemical cosmetics, or those made from plants and other natural ingredients, are also currently in demand globally.

However, instead of contributing to the growth of the industry, Pitahc’s purpose was once accused of deviating from its original mandate. According to reports, “Pitahc has been manufacturing and distributing products in direct competition with the private-sector producers.”

Going back to its original objectives and functions, the institute made a big change in their structure to focus on the works that it is directed to do.

A new face

A revered doctor from the Visayas recently joined the roster of Pitahc’s executives, with her 25 years of experience as a medical doctor and six years as a hospital administrator, Dr. Annabelle Pabiona-De Guzman was recently appointed by President Duterte as Pitahc’s director general.

In taking over the institution, Pabiona-de Guzman brings with her not only the education, numerous citations and even her years of expertise, but a heart with compassion to serve and be a channel of change and blessings to everyone who will come her way.

Pabiona-de Guzman maybe a petite woman but during an interview with the Health & Fitness, she bravely discussed the direction that the Pitahc will take in order to deliver the assignments the institution is tasked to do.

According to her, to clear up all the issues concerning the role of the Pitahc, the agency hired some experts who will help them to really transform the Pitahc as a research institution. To utilize the funds provided for them, Pabiona-de Guzman shared that this year they will commission their own research.

There are a number of research proposals on her table, but Pabiona-de Guzman is excited to announce their first commissioned research, which is very controversial due to the fact that it is included in the prohibited drugs.

“Our first commissioned research will be about medical cannabis [marijuana] used for cancer. The Pitahc allotted P10 million for this endeavor,” she shared, adding “If we are successful with the research about medical cannabis, the Pitahc will have the intellectual property rights.”

The soft-spoken doctor also shared with us the vision that she and PITAHC executives have for the traditional and alternative medicine industry in the country is to grow bigger, better and recognized as an effective and safe health-care solution.

She envisioned the country’s alternative-medicine healers to be on a par with their counterparts from Thailand and Malaysia, where they are recognized as doctors of alternative medicine. She said that in Thailand there are educational institutions for alternative-medicine healers.

“After several years of schooling, there will be an examination they need to pass and those who will qualify will have a license to practice alternative medicine. Some of our neighboring Asian nations that have been advocating traditional medicine are very advanced, thus, giving their people more health-care options.”

Aside from the researches the Pitahc will commission, Pabiona-de Guzman wants the Pinoy traditional healers to have know-how and skills upgrading, where they will be aware of the development and trends in the industry.

She said the agency is looking into more ways and channels where they can help the traditional healers to learn the other techniques that are effective and popular in other countries, such as Malaysia and Vietnam.

“Many Filipinos don’t have access to western medicines and technologies, with alternative-medicine methods, drugs made from herbal plants—which are known for their medicinal use are more affordable and also effective, we are giving the poor, the indigenous people a health-care option that they are accustomed to but, this time, improved and backed by science.”

Pabiona-de Guzman, together with her people in her agency, vowed to make traditional and alternative medicine a part of our national health-care delivery system, for real.