Beliefnet

Back in the '60s, it was cool to be counter. Many baby boomers were against anything mainstream: the war and LBJ, corporate America, and most everything the older generation held dear. Even now, when it comes to unconventional medical approaches, I love the feisty label "alternative"--especially given the choices of the idealistic "holistic," the diplomatic "complementary," or the now fashionable "integrative."

After all, it was "alternative medicine" that skeptic Leon Jaroff targeted for his vitriolic attack in the November 8, 1999, issue of Time. "'Alternative medicine,'" he charged, "is merely a politically correct term for what used to be called quackery."

Would his blistering rant have had the same impact had he attacked "integrative medicine"? I don't think so.

In 1995, the National Institutes of Health (NIH) sponsored a Complementary and Alternative Medicine (CAM) Research Methodology Conference in which a panel was convened to ponder labels for non-mainstream medicine. The distinguished body identified segments of the population that use these forms of medicine. There are those, the panel declared, who view the terms "alternative" and "complementary" as accurate and value-neutral; others find the terms "offensive for implying the centrality of biomedicine." The panel also stated that there are those who flaunt the labels of "alternative" and "complementary" like "badges of honor to point out what's missing in biomedicine."

I fall squarely in the latter group. I'm still gripped by counterculture cachet, but these days my cohorts are known as the cultural creatives. We are the 44 million adults identified by sociologist Paul Ray as valuing, among other things, ecological sustainability, feminism, spirituality--and "alternative" medicine, perhaps valuing the label as much as the medicine. After all, haven't we also embraced "alternative music" and "alternative lifestyles"?

I concede to those offended by the "alternative" label that this term and the term "complementary" certainly imply the centrality of biomedicine, relegating other forms of medicine to peripheral roles. Something cannot be alternative or complementary unless it is alternative or complementary to something else, frequently, in this case, the politically dominant system referred to as "allopathy," from the Greek allo, meaning "opposite," and pathos, meaning "suffering." This form of medicine, in general, focuses on stamping out the disease or countering the symptoms. Some therapies that fall into the alternative category also operate in this way, such as the use of herbal remedies in place of antibiotics. Other alternatives, however, reflect perspectives rooted in very different philosophies, such as traditional Chinese medicine, ayurveda, homeopathy, and naturopathy. These philosophies might be labeled "holistic" because they focus not on disease but on body, mind, and spirit.

But the term "alternative" is intrinsically weak insofar as much of its support lies in anti-establishment feelings and because, by definition, it includes healing approaches that have not been proven by scientific methods. Thus, a treatment such as acupuncture, which is gaining ground and acceptance through research, probably can no longer be considered "alternative."

This whole linguistic sticky wicket began with the term "holistic," which was coined in the 1920s. While it grew in popularity among lay people, it remained on the fringes in medical and academic circles perhaps because it became too closely associated with the New Age movement in the '70s and '80s. Holistic medicine sought to treat not symptoms but the whole person, including his or her body, mind, and spirit.

In 1992, when Congress funded the Office of Alternative Medicine (OAM) at NIH, "alternative" was the more recognized term for unconventional treatments not taught in medical school. But on the one hand, "alternative" sounded adversarial, and on the other, some practitioners saw these approaches as adjuncts to Western treatment, not as separate medical options. So the label "alternative" gave way to the softer "complementary," preferred in European medical circles. One approach central to complementary medicine was nutrition, which had not garnered much attention in the medical community before the early 1980s.

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