Alternative medicine is a broad and ill-defined term used to describe a diverse range of medical therapies, techniques, procedures and products that are not valued as proven medical treatments by conventional, mainstream medicine. Problems with defining a particular therapy as “alternative” arise, (1) as there is no general consensus as to what is alternative and what is not, (2) as the term represents a diverse group of medical practices and (3) as some practices that were once considered alternative have since come into mainstream use.
Perhaps the clearest way to differentiate between an alternative medical practice and conventional medicine is to consider that for a conventional medical idea to achieve validity, it must stand up to strict scientific research. On the whole, alternative medical therapies have not undergone or have failed such rigid scrutiny.
While, in general, there is no licensing requirement for those who practice alternative medical therapies, there does exist, at least in the US, a National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine. The center further complicates the definition of these kinds of therapies by distinguishing between a complementary medicine, one that is used along with conventional medicine, alternative medicine, one that is used in the place of conventional medicine and, finally, integrative medicine, where alternative and conventional medical therapies work closely with one another.
Incidence of Use
Despite the opinions of the medical establishment, approximately 50% of all people in the Western world have used some form of alternative therapy. Those advocating the use of alternative medicine feel that it provides more choices for patients, empowers them as an active participant in their care and places a greater emphasis on preventive healthcare.
Many, but not all, providers of alternative medicine fully endorse the concurrent use of conventional medical therapy and use their “alternative” skills as a form of complementary treatment. Critics of alternative medicine cite the reluctance of some alternative medical providers to refer aspects of the patient care to conventional medicine when it becomes obvious that the alternative treatment isn’t working. They argue that seriously ill patients may delay receiving proper diagnosis and treatment with possible dangerous consequences.
Perhaps the biggest criticism of alternative medicine is the lack of controlled, peer-reviewed scientific studies showing the usefulness of a given alternative therapy. Those studies that are available are generally poorly designed and are filled with observer bias. Studies designed as such are considered unacceptable to modern medical science.
In spite of criticism from the medical community, the presence of alternative medicine is likely to continue and remain popular among those in the general public. Some of these alternative medical therapies will eventually be proven by scientific studies as effective and will become a part of mainstream medicine. Those therapies that will never hold up under scientific scrutiny will likely continue to be used by people who simply believe the therapies to be helpful.