In the world of health care, medicine can take the forms of conventional medicine, alternative medicine, complementary medicine, or a hybrid called integrative medicine.
Conventional medicine typically includes pharmaceutical or over the counter drugs, therapeutic exercises, and/or surgical interventions. Conventional medicine is what many Americans encounter in hospitals and clinics. While conventional medicine can sometimes be expensive and invasive, it is also proficient at treating many health conditions. Most people would agree that if they were in a severe accident they would want to be taken immediately to an emergency room filled with the latest high-tech equipment that is founded on conventional practice. While many treatments in conventional medicine are based on scientific research, some conventional treatments are not rooted in science and some mask the symptoms but are ineffective at treating the root cause.
Alternative medicine is another approach that incorporates any therapy or treatment typically excluded by conventional medicine. Alternative medicine can include hundreds of different treatments from acupuncture and qui gong to homeopathy and iridology. Typically, alternative medicine includes treatments that are more natural and less invasive than conventional medicine, and often less expensive as well. The issue modern science has with some treatments that fit under the umbrella of alternative medicine is that many lack scientific evidence and defined standards for administration. Because of this and other variabilities, many conventional medical doctors have not been supportive of alternative medicine in the past.
However, conventional doctors are beginning to recognize that alternative medicine and conventional medicine can be used cooperatively, such as the use of ginger syrup to treat nausea during chemotherapy. This marriage of conventional and alternative medicine has been referred to as complementary medicine or CAM. As an example, if your doctor recommends you attend physical therapy to help with joint pain but instead you decide to do acupuncture you have chosen an alternative treatment option in place of a conventional option. However, if you decide to try both the physical therapy suggested by your doctor in conjunction with acupuncture, you are using an alternative medical treatment together with a conventional medical treatment and this is considered complementary. Another example of complementary medicine is getting your flu shot and using Echinacea during cold and flu season, with the shot being a conventional medical treatment and the supplementation with Echinacea being an alternative medical treatment. However, often while the alternative medicine is being used in complement with the conventional treatment, they are not both under the recommendation or supervision of a single medical practitioner. People often do not disclose to their conventional medical doctor that they are using alternative supplements or therapies and likewise they do not always disclose all of their conventional pharmaceutical medicines or previous surgeries and treatments to their alternative medical practitioner.
When you bring conventional and alternative or complementary medicine together in a scientifically coordinated way, the result is integrative medicine. Conventional physicians and hospitals across the United States are starting to use integrative approaches to health and wellness. Researchers are currently exploring the potential benefits of integrative medicine in a variety of situations, including use of essential oils to help with stress and anxiety in hospitalized patients with critical illnesses.1
Integrative medicine focuses on the whole person, is informed by scientific evidence, and makes use of all appropriate therapeutic approaches, health care professionals, and disciplines to achieve optimal health and healing.2 The scientific literature is beginning to explode with studies evaluating alternative medical treatments in a controlled conventional setting, so as to begin to develop scientifically based recommendations for dosage, frequency and duration of integrative methods to address overall health and wellness.
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- National Cancer Institute. Aromatherapy and Essential Oils (PDQr)- Health Professional Version. http://www.cancer.gov/about-cancer/treatment/cam/hp/aromatherapy-pdq. Accessed September 6, 2016.
- American Board of Physician Specialties. American Board of Integrative Medicine. http://www.abpsus.org/integrative-medicine-eligibility. Accessed September 6, 2016.