Fitting Complementary and Alternative Medicine into the Mainstream
The term “alternative medicine” evokes differing responses. On one end of
the spectrum, you get people who believe any kind of alternative medicine must
be good because it’s “natural.” On the other end are the people who seek
only conventional Western medicine. But one thing is certain: more and more
people, including healthcare professionals, are moving to the center of the
spectrum, picking and choosing treatments they believe to be effective.
Studies show that as many as 43 percent of Americans have used some form of
alternative medicine. Hospitals and insurance companies, which used to steer
clear of anything that could be considered alternative, have changed their
approach. From 1998 to 2000, the number of hospitals offering some type of
alternative therapies nearly doubled. Some insurance companies now reimburse
members for treatments such as acupuncture or chiropractic.
Clarifying the terminology
The National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine (NCCAM) defines
complementary and alternative medicine (CAM) as “a group of diverse medical
and health care systems, practices and products that are not presently
considered to be part of conventional medicine.”
To break it down further, “complementary medicine” is used in combination
with conventional medicine. An example of this would be a patient who gets
acupuncture treatments to relieve nausea and vomiting caused by chemotherapy.
When a patient decides to forego conventional treatment and use a less accepted
treatment instead, that’s considered “alternative medicine.” A patient who
uses a special diet to treat cancer rather than undergoing chemotherapy,
radiation or surgery would be choosing an alternative medicine approach.
You may also have heard the term “integrative medicine.” NCCAM defines this
as a combination of “mainstream medical therapies and CAM therapies for which
there is some high-quality scientific evidence of safety and effectiveness.”
Which CAM therapies are most accepted by doctors?
Some doctors feel that pretty much all CAM treatments have not been proven
effective according to Western standards. Other doctors may feel that there’s
enough evidence to support the use of some treatments that seem to have been
beneficial for some patients.
An article in April’s New York Times stated that a study of physicians showed
that about half of them believed in the effectiveness of five alternative
- Herbal medicine
Many hospitals have added programs that offer stress reduction techniques,
massage therapy and other types of treatments that might be thought of as
spa-like offerings. These programs usually are not covered by insurance, but
there seems to be a demand for them from people who are willing to pay.
A need for further testing
In 1998, Congress established the NCCAM at the National Institutes of Health (NIH).
NIH is one of the world’s most widely recognized biomedical research
institutions. It serves as a focal point for the federal government’s position
on a wide range of medical procedures and practices.
The role of the NCCAM is to explore CAM healing processes in the context of
“rigorous science,” to train CAM medicine researchers and to provide CAM
information to the general public and to professionals. As more and more CAM
clinical trials are completed, it will become clear whether the practices that
are currently causing debate among medical professionals are legitimate
Until that time, the most sensible approach is to proceed with caution. Talk
with your doctor about treatments you’re interested in. If you come upon
information that promotes a treatment that sounds too good to be true (or maybe
just extremely weird), trust your instincts. It’s probably a good idea to stay
away from so-called “miracle cures.”
But don’t rule out treatments that may be beneficial to you. Some
complementary therapies may help you manage any chronic condition you have. They
may help you feel more balanced or relaxed. Some may help improve your mental
Follow your interests and health needs, and you may find that a CAM therapy is a
helpful addition to your medicine chest.
American Medical News, 3 June 2002, 17 January 2000; New England Journal of Medicine, 1998;339:839-841.; New York Times, 13 April 2002; Report of the White House Commission; National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine, National Institutes of Health;