Alternative medicine is a booming industry in western countries and the Czech Republic has not been slow to pick up this trend. More and more centres in Prague are offering various treatments in anything from traditional Czech herbalism, aromatherapy, or Chinese deep tissue massage. So, whether they are discontent with the current medical system or out to try something new, Czechs are using holistic medicine in increasing numbers.
Doctor Karel Nespor uses herbs and relaxation techniques with his patients in Bohnice, the country's largest mental hospital. He says because there is such a wide choice and great number of products on the market, the industry is flourishing.
"Well, I think the Czech population likes alternative medicine. Yoga classes flourish in this country. Various herbal supplements are sold and also traditional Chinese medicine is quite popular here."
Those who are most likely to use unorthodox treatments are well-educated, well-read, and like to try new things. Etienne Voss, who is from South Africa but practices acupuncture and Chinese medicine here in Prague, thinks Czechs are open to the alternatives, but he finds there is a lack of consumer education.
"Czech people are open to many different forms of alternative medicine. The problem is them having access to correct information, about the different medical systems, whether it's homeopathy, acupuncture, different types of massage. What these medicines can do, this is where, to a certain amount, there is a lack of knowledge."
But, the lack of information is only one part of the story. Unlike in Canada and the U.K. for example, alternative treatments are not covered by medical insurance. This means people must pay upward to 1000 crowns or about 45 U.S. dollars out of their own pockets to visit a practioner. Despite these obstacles, Lenka Romanova who practices traditional Chinese medicine runs a busy private clinic.
"I don't think there is sufficient coverage in the press at all. It is very rarely that someone is writing about alternative medicine, there are not enough programs on television and I don't think that people are informed well enough. Generally, also I would say that the health system is still pretty good, in comparison with what I've seen in the U.K. And I'm talking NHS, not private, so people get used to going to their doctors, they get used to receiving free service, they are definitely not used to paying for medical services."
Although, some countries have integrated holistic practitioners into the medical system; here, some treatments like acupuncture are supposed to only be practiced by medical doctors. The increase in demand for this therapy has prompted the Czech Sino-Biological Association in Prague, to begin teaching doctors the tricks of the trade. Lenka Romanova again.
"Well, I know that the Czech Sino-biological Association, they are organizing courses for medical doctors or people who are working in this kind of field. So each year, they are releasing about 40 or 50 people, or perhaps more, I really don't know the number, so obviously it is growing, but still, I don't think there is much competition in Prague."
Although qualified medical doctors will give acupuncture treatments, they are still not standard fare in hospitals. Lenka Romanova says in most hospitals, acupuncture is still looked on as being strange and Doctor Nespor says some therapies may be outright dangerous. He has however, had success in treating addictive disorders, using a combination of conventional and alternative methods. He finds his associates are also becoming more open to the idea of integrating conventional and holistic treatments as long as they are backed up by solid research.
"Definitely it differs, there are many medical practitioners who are very open and who even use some approaches like, acupuncture, relaxation training, yoga or even Traditional Chinese Medicine, or they may approve of, or recommend some herbal medicines. Generally, I think that most medical doctors are not biased and they are open to data which may either prove or disprove this or that approach."
If doctors are slowly opening up to holistic treatments, what do Czechs think about it? Here's what some from the streets of Prague had to say.
Man: "Sometimes when I have a cold or other minor problems, I will use herbs, but not other forms of natural medicine. Most of the time I take pills. I believe in it, but recovery takes time and it is more expensive. To take a tablet is easier for me; if I take an aspirin I feel better right away. If I take herbs, it takes too long."
Woman: "I think it is such an important industry, but at this time it is much easier to rely on things which are in the pharmacies, like tablets. But, it's true; in the western world many people wouldn't believe it, especially in Western Europe. Still in Czech and Slovakia, we do believe it."
Doctor Nespor recommends that people use the best from both worlds, but by mixing many types of treatments in his practice, he is still a minority. He told me his own ideal of medical care in the Czech Republic.
"Well, I will give my ideal prediction. I think the best development would be integration and cooperation between people from various fields of medical care and alternative medicine. Definitely, it would be the best way."
Doctor Nespor says that some medical problems require urgent and energetic western approaches and others respond better to long term and more gentle treatments. Judging by the number of seminars and various therapies available in Prague, it seems Czechs enjoy the alternative.
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