What is alternative versus traditional medicine?

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Comparing and contrasting nontraditional medicine with conventional, or Western, medicine.
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Alternative and traditional medicine have a great deal to learn from each other, and health practitioners and consumers have much to gain in bringing the two fields closer together. Alternative medicine is defined in many ways: as medicine that is “complementary,” “alternative,” “nontraditional,” “nonconventional,” and “unorthodox,” and as those “practices that are not in conformity with the beliefs or standards of the dominant group of medical practitioners in a society.”

Traditional medicine is defined as “allopathic,” “conventional,” “orthodox,” and “Western.” The term “traditional,” although used quite commonly, is somewhat inaccurate, given that many alternative medical disciplines have been practiced for thousands of years, while many conventional types of medicine have been practiced for one century or less. Also, most of these terms are relevant only in the context of Western culture. In some cultures, the so-called traditional approach is considered alternative and a particular alternative approach is considered traditional.

The US National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health, part of the National Institutes of Health (NIH), uses the terms “complementary health approaches" to refer to these therapies and techniques collectively and "integrative health" to discuss the incorporation of alternative medicine into mainstream Western medicine.

Alternative Medicine’s Appeal

Although the approach and focus of different types of alternative therapies may differ, they all share the following characteristics, which make them appealing to health consumers and practitioners willing to try alternative approaches: 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; treatment of the individual as a whole person; and an emphasis on preventing disease and maintaining health.

Criticisms of Traditional Medicine

Traditional medicine is commonly criticized for treating symptoms, such as pain or fever, instead of causes and for prescribing medications to try to mask these symptoms. However, this criticism is not entirely fair. Although it is true that doctors of traditional medicine often prescribe drugs or use other approaches to control symptoms, they also search for causes of symptoms, such as infection or inflammation, to be able to treat them allopathically.

Criticisms of Alternative Medicine

Alternative medical practices are commonly criticized for sensationalizing the merits of a particular nontraditional medical approach. For example, books about certain dietary approaches claim to cure a whole host of ailments, and similar claims are sometimes made about particular dietary supplements.

Alternative practitioners also are criticized for the way they report the outcomes of patient cases: often through anecdote. However, this practice is not limited to alternative practitioners: Any medical doctor, traditional or nontraditional, can relate a story about a patient who did either quite well or quite poorly with one or another method of treatment.

To counter some of these criticisms, both CAM and allopathic medicine are moving to an evidence-based approach to treatment. Evidence-based medicine is the application of a scientific process to distinguish chance outcomes from outcomes that are reproducible and, therefore, presumably more reliable.

Joining the Disciplines: Integrative Medicine

Integrative medicine was created to bring alternative and traditional medicines together. Victoria Maizes, the executive director of the University of Arizona Center for Integrative Medicine, has stated that “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—as minds and spirits, and as physical bodies—who participate actively in their own health care.

Many medical schools in the United States now teach the principles and practices of integrative medicine. Clinics and private practices are embracing its philosophy. Also, integrative medicine research studies have been published in peer-reviewed medical journals.

Skeptics in both CAM and traditional medical communities blame integrative medicine for being either too scientific or not scientific enough. For health consumers who would like “the best of both worlds,” integrative medicine may be a good choice. Health consumers should share with their practitioners any other treatments they are receiving.


In 1847, the American Medical Association was established to regulate medical care. 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 practice is considered the definitive standard of care, alternative medical practices will continue to face the challenges of recognition, acceptance, and respect. Nonetheless, many health insurance plans have begun covering expenses for complementary medicine.


American Academy of Family Physicians. http://www.aafp.org.

Bell, I., et al. “Integrative Medicine and Systematic Outcomes Research: Issues in the Emergence of a New Model for Primary Health Care.” Archives of Internal Medicine 162 (2002): 133–40. Print.

Gale, Nicola, and Jean V. McHale. Routledge Handbook of Complementary and Alternative Medicine: Perspectives from Social Science and Law. New York: Routledge, 2015. Print.

Kliger, B., et al. “Core Competencies in Integrative Medicine for Medical School Curricula: A Proposal.” Academic Medicine 79.6 (2004). Print.

Maizes, V., and O. Caspi. “The Principles and Challenges of Integrative Medicine: More than a Combination of Conventional and Alternative Medicine.” Western Journal of Medicine 171 (1999): 148–49. Print.

National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health. https://nccih.nih.gov/.

Pinzon-Perez, Helda, and Miguel A. Pérez. Complementary, Alternative, and Integrative Health: A Multicultural Perspective. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2016. Print.