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Fitting Complementary and Alternative Medicine into the Mainstream

separator 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 practices:

  • Acupuncture
  • Chiropractic
  • Herbal medicine
  • Homeopathy
  • Massage

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 treatments.

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 outlook.

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;
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