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Conventional, Complementary, Alternative or Integrative Medicine?

You have no doubt heard of and used one or more of these terms in relation to your health and treatment of illness. Some are still spoken with a derogatory tone, some given more authority than others and often they are used interchangeably and inaccurately. Therefore, I wondered if it was useful to offer some definitions.

Conventional medicine is a term commonly used to describe a system in which medical doctors and other healthcare professionals (such as nurses, pharmacists) treat symptoms and diseases using drugs, radiation, or surgery. Also called allopathic medicine, mainstream medicine, orthodox medicine, and Western medicine.

Alternative medicine is a term commonly used to describe a system of medicine based on a different underlying philosophy compared to western medicine, such Traditional Chinese medicine (TCM) a system of traditional medicine based on more than 2,500 years of Chinese medical practice that includes various forms of herbal medicine, acupuncture, tui na massage, qigong and dietary therapy. Or, Ayurvedic medicine which is one of the world’s oldest medical systems and remains one of India’s traditional health care systems. Ayurvedic treatment combines diet, exercise, and lifestyle.  Alternative systems offer a complete system of philosophy, diagnosis and treatment.

Ancient Chinese medical books in the Qing Dynasty, the Chinese herbal medicine on the table

Complementary medicine is a term commonly used to describe a group of diagnostic and therapeutic disciplines used alongside conventional medicine, such as: naturopathy, massage, aromatherapy, reflexology, healing, kinesiology, osteopathy, chiropractic, nutrition and so forth.  

Complementary medicine is based on western science but does not take a reductionist view as conventional medicine does. Complementary medicine maintains a holistic view of diagnostics and treatment.  This article offers further insight and notes, “Much like a mechanic who repairs a broken car by locating the defective part, physicians typically treat disease by identifying that isolatable abnormality. Implicit within this practice is the deeply rooted belief that each disease has a potential singular target for medical treatment. While the success of this approach is undeniable, it leaves little room for contextual information. The disease, and not the person affected by it, becomes the central focus. Our contemporary analytical tools are simply not designed to address more complex questions, and, thus, questions such as “how do a person’s sleeping habits, diet, living condition, co-morbidities, and stress collectively contribute to his/her heart disease?” remain largely unanswered.” https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC1459480/  

You may have heard of the term CAM meaning, Complementary and Alternative Medicine.  You can now see how it makes no sense to group these two systems together, as the underlying basis for diagnosis and treatment is completely different.

The term Integrative medicine refers to a model of medicine that considers the whole person, the full range of physical, emotional, mental, social, spiritual and environmental influences that affect a person’s health. This model puts the patient at the centre and includes many different modalities to facilitate wholeness and wellness while educating the patient. It would appear to be both a sensible approach to health and efficacious.

Of course, the human story of health and wellness is complex, with many facets and elements. Whilst we have capacity, are our own best doctor and as such can and should engage in the conversation with our health care providers and treatment choices.