Alternative vs. Traditional Medicine: Similarities, Differences, and How to Bridge the Gap
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. To begin, let's look at how alternative medicine and traditional medicine are defined, what constitutes some of the differences between the two approaches to medical care, and how these systems can work together.
Defining 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.
Characteristics of Alternative Medicine
Why 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
- Treating the individual as a whole person, as opposed to a series of parts
- An emphasis on preventing disease and maintaining health
The Role of the AMA: How Does It Affect Alternative Therapy Practices?
In 1847 a body known as the American Medical Association (AMA) was established to try to regulate medical care. The initial goals of the organization included licensing physicians and setting standards for the delivery of medical education. Now, 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; in fact, the implication is that, because they deviate from the "standard of care," the practices and practitioners are incompetent.
Challenging Some Common Criticisms—From Both Sides
A common criticism of traditional medicine by alternative practitioners seems to be that medical doctors treat symptoms, such as pain or fever, without searching for the root cause and that they tend to give medications to try to mask these symptoms. This is not entirely true. Although it is true that doctors often give medications 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 made by conventional practitioners 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.
Logic makes it unlikely that one approach could be the answer for so many health problems. When one is trained to "think objectively," as medical training is supposed to teach, it makes it very difficult to accept this cure-all type of thought process. Medical doctors are trained to be skeptics.
Another example of recounting information which some traditional practitioners may think of as sensationalist, 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 of Western medicine, however, 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.
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 physician 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 community that blame integrative medicine for being either too scientific or not scientific enough, depending on ones point of view. For patients however who would like “the best of the two worlds” integrative medicine practice may be a very good choice. .
There is a very important role for the objectivity that a Western medical doctor learns. This objectivity should, in many ways, provide you with a certain degree of comfort and confidence. There is also an extremely important role for the personal and holistic approach of alternative medicine practices and practitioners. This warmth and individuality should provide a different type of comfort and confidence. Ideally, there is a way to bring aspects of the two together and have the best of both worlds. Try to not be intimidated or scared about discussing your practices with your medical doctor. 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
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Last reviewed February 2010 by
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