Alternative vs. Traditional Medicine
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Alternative vs. Traditional Medicine

HCA image for fertility alternatives Alternative and traditional medicine have a great deal to learn from each other. And we all have a lot to learn in terms of bringing the two closer together.

The Differences

Alternative medicine is referred to in many different ways—alternative medicine, complementary medicine, complementary and alternative medicine (CAM), nontraditional medicine, nonconventional medicine, unorthodox medicine, and a whole host of others. CAM is the term used by the National Institute of Health (NIH) and other mainstream medical establishments.

Traditional medicine is also referred to in many different ways—allopathic, traditional, conventional, orthodox ,and Western medicine, to name a few. The term "traditional," although used quite commonly, seems somewhat inaccurate, given that many alternative medical disciplines have been around for thousands of years, while many conventional practices have been around much less than a century. Most of these terms, actually, are only relevant in the context of Western culture.

A commonly used definition of alternative medicine is "practices that are not in conformity with the beliefs or standards of the dominant group of medical practitioners in a society." As one might imagine, therefore, in another society our so-called "traditional approach" would be considered alternative and a particular alternative approach would be considered traditional.

The Appeal of Alternative Medicine

What is the appeal of alternative medicine? Although the approach and focus of different types of alternative therapies may differ, they all seem to share the following characteristics:

  • Empowerment of the individual to participate in and take responsibility for his or her own health
  • Recognition and emphasis on lifestyle issues, such as proper nutrition, exercise, adequate rest, and emotional and spiritual balance
  • Treatment of the individual as a whole person, as opposed to a series of parts
  • Emphasis on preventing disease and maintaining health

American Medical Association's Role

In 1847, the American Medical Association (AMA) was established to try to regulate medical care. This governing body controls state medical boards and determines whether doctors can receive or maintain hospital privileges, and whether they can keep their medical license. A medical license can be revoked for a reason secondary to incompetence, which is essentially defined as deviating from what is known as the "standard of care."

As long as Western medical practices are considered "standard of care," it makes it very difficult for alternative medical practices to become recognized, accepted, and respected.

Common Criticisms—From Both Sides

A common criticism of traditional medicine is that medical doctors treat symptoms, such as pain or fever, without searching for the root cause and that they tend to give medicines to try to mask these symptoms. This is not entirely true. Although it is true that doctors often give medicines or use approaches to control symptoms, they also search for causes of symptoms, such as infection or inflammation, in order to be able to treat them allopathically.

Looking in the other direction, one frequent criticism of alternative medical practices is the occasional sensationalism in reporting the merits of a particular approach. For example, there are books about certain dietary approaches that claim to cure a whole host of ailments. The same types of claims are sometimes made about particular supplements.

Another criticism of alternative practitioners is the method of case reporting—in other words, telling a story, or what we refer to as an anecdote, of someone who did quite well with a particular approach. Any medical doctor can also tell you individual stories about someone who did either quite well or quite poorly with one or another method of treatment.

The objective approach, the so-called evidence-based approach is intended to look at how likely a particular treatment is to help a person with a certain problem. Evidence-based medicine is the application of a scientific process to distinguish outcomes due to chance from outcomes which are reproducible and, therefore, presumably more reliable. Both CAM and allopathic medicine are moving more and more to an evidence based approach.

Bridging the Gap

In order to help bridge the gap and bring the two disciplines together, integrative medicine was created. This is how it has been defined by Victoria Maizes, a family doctor with University of Arizona and one of the key people responsible for its success: “Integrative medicine honors the innate ability of the body to heal, values the relationship between patient and physician, and integrates complementary and alternative medicine when appropriate to facilitate healing."

Integrative medicine refocuses medicine on health and healing. It insists on patients being treated as whole persons—minds and spirits, as well as physical bodies— who participate actively in their own healthcare. Today, many medical schools in the United States teach the principles and practice of integrative medicine. There are clinics and practices that embrace its philosophy. Also, integrative medicine research studies have been published in peer reviewed journals. Naturally, there are many sceptics within both CAM and traditional medical communities that blame integrative medicine for being either too scientific or not scientific enough. For patients who would like “the best of the two worlds,” integrative medicine practice may be a good choice.

One important thing to remember is you should share with your practitioners what other treatments you are receiving. You should let your alternative care practitioner know of any traditional medicine treatments you are receiving and you should let your traditional medicine doctor know about any alternative medicine treatments you are receiving. We all have a great deal to learn in terms of integrating these important areas of healthcare, and communication is one of the best places to begin.


American Academy of Family Physicians

National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine


Canadian Medical Association

Health Canada


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Last reviewed February 2011 by Brian Randall, MD

Last updated Updated: 2/17/2011

Please be aware that this information is provided to supplement the care provided by your physician. It is neither intended nor implied to be a substitute for professional medical advice. CALL YOUR HEALTHCARE PROVIDER IMMEDIATELY IF YOU THINK YOU MAY HAVE A MEDICAL EMERGENCY. Always seek the advice of your physician or other qualified health provider prior to starting any new treatment or with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition.

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