By Dana Ullman MPH


  • Futurists commonly predict impressive high-tech developments in medicine that await us in the twenty-first century. The new computerized diagnostic equipment, the emerging uses of lasers in treatment, and the pharmacological advances due to genetic engineering are all expected to make contemporary medicine seem relatively primitive.
  • Each new technology, however, brings with it new problems and does not necessarily solve old ones. For instance, despite the many advances in medicl testing, most medical tests are accurate only 90% of the time. Thus, if a physician recommends a battery of 20 medical tests, only 36% of the patients would receive accurate results (1).
  • And medical treatment may not be as effective or as safe as we might like, hope, or expect. One study of patients in a respected Boston university hospital discovered that over one-third of the patients were admitted for iatrogenic (doctor-induced) disease (2) (such statistics are expected to be even higher in hospitals not affiliated with a medical school).
  • Futurists often ignore the problems of present technologies and assume that new technologies will solve these problems. It is likely, even obvious, that twenty-first century medicine will not only have a high-tech side, but also be a “high-natural” side to medicine’s future.
  • As a result of new understandings of the body and mind and as a result of growing popularity in the self-care, wellness, and alternative health movements, futurists are now having to rewrite the future…or at least their thoughts about it.

The High-Natural Revolution in Medicine

  • New research from neurology, internal medicine, and psychiatry has begun to help us better understand and map the links between specific psychological states and certain diseases. The new field of “psychoneuroimmunology” has emerged, and its implications for helping us understand disease processes and develop potentially valuable therapeutic approaches are tremendous.
  • These new understandings of body-mind connections will have significant impact of medical care. Not only will this new knowledge provide insight into how illness develops, but it will also suggest new or even very old strategies for treating acute and chronic conditions.
  • The high-natural revolution in medicine is already taking place. Self-care practices have grown considerably in the past decade and even faster growth is projected for the next decade. Market research on the three most popular at-home medical diagnostic tests are expected to grow by nearly 300 percent from 1984 to 1990. (3) A University of Chicago study found that those people who engage in self-care practices spent 26 percent less on hospital bills and 19 percent less on physicians’ services. (4) Since the cost of health care has been and will continue to be a serious problem, self-care will not only be important for encouraging better health but also for saving money.

Wellness programs at corporations have also experienced impressive growth in the past five years. In 1982 only about five percent of employers had some kind of wellness program, but by 1986, 36 percent had such a program. A group benefits survey of 1,418 employers found that an impressive 49 percent of them have some form of health promotion programming.(5) Even hospitals are developing wellness programs, both for their patients and for their community.

Predictions for significantly greater recognition of various alternative health practices may surprise some people; however, these forecasts are simply projections from present-day trends. The number of alternative birth centers in hospitals has grown astronomically in the past fifteen years. Hospices have gained broad support from hospitals, federal agencies, and various charitable medical organizations, including the American Cancer Society. There is more interest in nutrition and fitness than ever before, and this interest does not seem to be simply faddish, but seems to represent a significant change in lifestyle.

Just ten years ago, biofeedback was considered a part of “alternative medicine,” but today it is an integral part of the care provided by many physicians and psychologists. Relaxation and visualization exercises are not simply pastimes for idle moments when one has nothing better to do, but are becoming consciously planned activities that provide their own health benefits.

Acupuncture is not just gaining wider credibility from the public, but is being practiced by a growing number of various health professionals. In 1974 no states licensed acupuncturists, and yet today, over 20 states license them.

An even more controversial alternative therapy, homeopathic medicine, has begun to achieve increased respectability as well. New research has been published in highly respected scientific journals on homeopathy which shows that the small doses of medicines that homeopaths use definitely have action, (6) and a meta-analysis of clinical studies which was published in the British Medical Journal found the medicines to be particularly effective in treating allergies, arthritic conditions, migraine headaches, common infections, and rheumatoid arthritis.(7) Sales of homeopathic medicines in the U.S. have grown from a $100 million market in 1988 to a $200 million market in 1992.

Naisbett, Bezold, Carlson, and Peck are not the only futurists who are predicting the emergence of high-natural medicine in the twenty-first century.(8) The American Council of Life Insurance has published a series of reports on health care in the year 2030. One of the Council’s scenarios for the future predicts, “Osteopaths, acupuncturists, massage therapists, ethnic healers, and allopathically trained diagnosticians (conventional physicians) will have equal status—and roughly equal earnings.”(9)


The Emergence of Collaborative Health Care

Health care in the twenty-first century will inevitably have both high-tech and high-natural components. A “collaborative model of health care” will inevitably emerge. High-tech physicians will collaborate with various high-touch health practitioners, and the patient him or herself will play an active role as an integral part of the health care team. Such health care will have its difficulties, complexities, and problems too, but it will also probably help us die young…as late in life as possible.



(1)Thomas A. Preston, The Clay Pedestal, New York: Charles Scribner’s, 1986, 130.

(2)K. Steele,, “Iatrogenic Illness on a General Medical Service at a University Hospital,” New England Journal of Medicine, 304 (1981): 638-642.

(3)Tom Ferguson, MD, “The Growing Trend Toward Self-Responsibility for Health,” Medical Self-Care, November-December, 1986, 64.

(4)Original source: John Fiorello, Helping Ourselves to Health: The Self-Care and Personal Health Enhancement Market in the U.S., New York, 1983, 67 (The Health Strategy Group, 325 Spring St., New York, NY 10013).

(5)Meg Fletcher, “Interest in Wellness Programs Surges,” Business Insurance, February, 1987: 21(7):31.

(6)For many references, see Dana Ullman, Discovering Homeopathy: Medicine for the 21st Century, Berkeley: North Atlantic, 1991.

(7)Kleijnen, J., P. Knipschild, and G. ter Riet, “Clinical Trials of Homoeopathy,” British Medical Journal, 302: February 9, 1991, 316-23.

(8)Clement Bezold, Rick J. Carlson, and Jonathan C. Peck, The Future of Work and Health, Dover, Massachusetts: Auburn House, 1986.

(9)Trend Analysis Program, Health Care: Three Reports from 2030 A.D., Washington, D.C.: American Council for Life Insurance, Spring, 1980, 10-11.