Alternative Medicine in a Western World: Does it Have a Place?

By: Kelli Turner

The decision of how to take care of one’s own health requires serious consideration of the different types of healthcare paths. The two main branches of medicine which one could pursue include traditional Western medicine, and complementary and alternative medicine. The latter, collectively known as CAM, encompasses health and wellness therapies that are typically excluded from conventional Western medicine. In this case, complementary treatments include those that are used in conjunction with traditional medicine, whereas alternative therapies are treatments used in place of traditional medicine [1]. Despite the long-standing history and application of CAM therapies for centuries [2], certain negative attitudes persist toward the use of CAM methods. Many of the therapies have been accused of lacking scientific support; attributing successes to the “placebo effect” whereby patients may only see benefits due to their faith in the treatment [3].

Despite these attitudes, the use of CAM therapies is increasing in North America and across the world. In 2013, it was found that up to 70% of adults used a form of CAM during a one-year time frame in Canada [4]. This increase in the prevalence of CAM may be attributed to many factors. There are certain aspects that CAM focuses on which may be lacking in Western practices. For example, the infrastructure in which traditional medicine takes place was originally designed with the intention to fight infectious disease, as this was the main problem when healthcare systems began to take form [5]. Hospitals, pharmaceutical industries, and health insurance companies are all catered around the model of utilizing pharmaceuticals or surgery to combat disease [5]. Contrarily, the design of CAM takes a holistic approach in which the mind, body, and soul are treated as a single entity. This involves a focus on adapting individual lifestyle choices and health behaviours to contribute to overall health rather than treating singular conditions [6]. For this reason, CAM’s holistic, preventative therapies have been recognized as a practical approach in combating modern disease [7].

However, general consensus in the medical community maintains that the effectiveness of treatments and therapies should be verifiable through scientific research. Several reviews have identified the current lack of evidence for CAM therapies, while others highlight certain alternative therapies which have demonstrated otherwise. For example, the use of traditional Chinese medicine as a therapy has provided dramatic improvement in the survival rate of acute promyelocytic leukemia (APL) patients, and is now considered a standard of care for APL treatment [8]. However, many CAM therapies have yet to be subjected to formal clinical trials to verify their effectiveness [9].

While it is of great importance that safety and efficacy are considered when choosing a treatment path, differing situations may call for different forms of medicine; whether traditional or CAM. As scientific support for CAM therapies develops, perhaps the healthcare system will benefit from an integration of both techniques, allowing for an increase in safer and more effective patient-centered care overall [8].

[1] What is complementary and alternative medicine? National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine. National Institutes of Health. Accessed Feb 7, 2017.

[2] Traditional Chinese Medicine, National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health, Traditional Chinese Medicine: An Introduction National Institutes of Health. Accessed Feb 8, 2017

[3] Practice and Policy Guidelines Panel, National Institutes of Health Office of Alternative Medicine.  Clinical practice guidelines in complementary and alternative medicine: an analysis of opportunities and obstacles (1997). Arch Fam Med, 6:149-154.

[4] Complementary and Alternative Health. Public Health Agency of Canada. Accessed Feb 17, 2017.

[5] Ernst, E. (2000). The role of complementary and alternative medicine. British medical journal, 321(7269): 1133.

[6] McKee, J. (1988). Holistic health and the critique of Western medicine. Social science & medicine, 26(8), 775-784.

[7] Metcalfe, A., Williams, J., McChesney, J., Patten, S. B., & Jetté, N. (2010). Use of complementary and alternative medicine by those with a chronic disease and the general population-results of a national population based survey. BMC Complementary and Alternative Medicine, 10(1): 58.

[8] Xu, H., & Chen, K. J. (2012). Complementary and alternative medicine: is it possible to be mainstream?. Chinese Journal of Integrative Medicine, 18(6): 403-404.

[9] Fontanarosa, P. B., & Lundberg, G. D. (1998). Alternative medicine meets science. Jama, 280(18): 1618-1619.

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