What is alternative medicine?
Complementary and alternative medicine (sometimes called CAM) is an umbrella term for a wide selection of treatments that fall outside the conventional western, allopathic approach. They can be used either as a complement to traditional treatments or instead of said approaches.
Examples of alternative treatments include popular buzzwords you hear nowadays. Reiki, acupuncture, Ayurveda, yoga are just a few examples of alternative practices that have been gaining tremendous amounts of popularity in recent years.
Many of these treatments have ancient roots. Some of them, in fact, originated thousands of years ago, particularly in Eastern cultures. For example, Traditional Chinese Medicine, a very popular alternative practice, goes back to the Shang Dynasty (1600 – 1046 BC). Likewise, practices like Yoga come from thousands of years ago.
- Whole Medical Systems: comprehensive approaches to healing based on particular views on how the healing process works.
- Body: treatments that have to do directly with the physical body to treat specific illnesses.
- Mind: techniques to enhance the mind’s influence in the healing of the body.
- Energy: based on the core belief that every living organism has an energetic system that needs to remain in balance for optimal health.
- Spiritual: based on the premise that true health is when someone connects with its own soul and purpose.
One of the key differences between these practices and conventional treatments is how each system looks at the person and the healing process. Alternative treatments tend to see the person as a set of interconnected systems, of which the physical aspect is just one of them. Conventional treatments, on the other hand, tend to focus more specifically on just the physical aspect.
Similarly, alternative treatments are less focused on symptom treatment and more on addressing the root cause as well as prevention. Conventional treatments, generally tend to have a more symptom-based approach.
Adoption of alternative therapies over time
In many cultures, particularly Eastern cultures, alternative medicine was the only way to practice medicine. In some cases, it continues to be. Around the 19th century, conventional medicine took over and the practice of medicine changed in the face of rapid advances in science. Hospital doctors began a much more systematic analysis of patients’ symptoms in diagnosis. Among the more powerful new techniques were anesthesia and the development of antiseptic and aseptic surgeries. With the rise of popularity of this approach, the term “alternative medicine” was developed to differentiate these treatments from this more modern approach.
Critics of alternative medicine treatments cite the lack of evidence regarding effectiveness using the scientific framework used in more modern medicine. Yet, most of the government funding for studies would primarily go to modern techniques. This created a vicious cycle where alternative treatments did not have the appropriate financial foundation to be more present in society. As a result, these treatments have been historically received with skepticism, particularly in the scientific community.
In spite of this, people used these treatments, especially when conventional approaches were just not enough. As alternative treatments can treat many illnesses, people would see them as additional viable options in an effort to feel better. Alternative medicine can, in fact, help with many conditions. From pain management to sleep disorders and weight loss, there is a vast array of use cases where non-conventional treatments can be helpful.
What started as an underground adoption of alternative treatments, has now become more mainstream. As a matter of fact, a famous study released by the NIH in 2012 indicated that the interest in alternative medicine has significantly increased in the past decade, with a positive attitude from the general public. This study demonstrates a clear increase in the use of alternative treatments from 1990 to 2006 in all countries investigated. And this trend continues nowadays, with many experts indicating that the global complementary and alternative market size is expected to exceed USD 400 billion by 2028.
Integrating alternative and conventional medicine
The popularization of alternative treatments has been further accelerated by various factors. These factors include the growing trend in healthier lifestyles, rapid adoption of the internet and digital technologies, and better access to information. For example, when comparing the adoption of the word meditation back in 2005 to 2020, the difference is huge. Not only do many more people think they must adopt it, but also they are more informed about it and share their opinions and experiences openly.
Additionally, the curation of information regarding these treatments is becoming an important factor. In portals like ours, individuals can now get informed about all the different options available, what to look for in the different practitioners, and learn about the experiences from other users. This is helping demystify the space, making what was originally perceived as obscure a more accepted and normal choice.
All these trends triggered a slow, yet steady incorporation of alternative treatments in the conventional medicine space. According to a survey released by the Health Forum in 2012, 42% of hospitals are incorporating alternative treatments as part of their care approach. Today, major hospitals and medical centers, like the Cleveland Clinic, Mayo Clinic, among many others, offer alternative therapies to their patients as an optional complement to their treatments. According to the author of the survey “hospitals are responding to patients’ desire to have the best that both conventional and alternative medicine can offer”.
Another phenomenon is the popularization of integrative medicine. As the name suggests, integrative medicine brings together conventional and alternative approaches that have shown high-quality evidence-based effectiveness and safety. This is an initial attempt to bridge the gap between conventional and alternative. This novel approach is becoming increasingly adopted and the public applauds and embraces this new moment.
The notion of dedicated integrative health centers where patients could access a wide range of services under one roof hasn’t fully taken shape yet, but the wheels are turning. Likewise, the expansion of medical education to include exposure to alternative treatments is already taking shape. Many schools now offer optional classes on alternative medicine and over time, it may very well become the norm.
The future for integrating alternative and conventional medicine is brighter than ever. According to the Rady School of Management from the UC of San Diego. Integrative medicine is a growing trend that has the potential to become the new gold standard that will define the “medicine” of the future. And we’re way on our way. We are starting to see changes in the following aspects.
The technological advances made in medicine over the past century are remarkable. Emergency care, high-tech surgeries and revolutionary drugs have helped our society solve some of the most complex and life-threatening conditions. And yet, our high-tech health care system seems to have lost the human element so crucial to good care, especially when it comes to prevention, lifestyle empowerment, and natural approaches.
In fact, many professionals think alternative treatments should be the first line of defense for many illnesses. Unfortunately, not all health care professionals are adequately trained for this task. Individuals and families need to be empowered with new ways to achieve their health goals. And they are, as more people have access to information, resources, and technology in a space that was enigmatic as recently as 20 years ago.
In the future, people should be empowered to adopt many preventive measures into their lifestyles, with proper guidance facilitated by technology. By the same token, they can easily find the right cadence of treatments (alternative or conventional) based on their specific condition and health history, all with the appropriate consumable information that backs up these recommendations.
Integrating the “alternative” and the “conventional”, requires an acknowledgment of the effectiveness of alternative treatments into our existing mainstream system. We are seeing this paradigm taking place as medical institutions continue to embrace and incorporate these treatments into their practices. Naturally, these institutions require their whole system to be familiar with these treatments and traditional doctors are not only knowledgeable on these topics, but also advocates for them.
Likewise, at the academic level, doctors are provided the opportunity to learn more about alternative treatments. And this trend will continue to pick up the pace, where perhaps this will be required knowledge for any medical practice. This will help redefine the concept of medicine. The future concept of medicine is one where there is a holistic approach to healthcare, one that includes the different layers of the person and that blends the alternative with the conventional. And where the different approaches merge into one concept of care.
Researchers consider randomized case-controlled trials (RCTs) to be the “gold standard” for research. However, RCTs are not the best way to study practices that take into account multiple systems (and their interdependencies). The reductionist philosophy seeks to isolate a single variable from its context in order to study it. The truth is that we work in systems. Behavior patterns, eating patterns, sleeping patterns, and all lifestyle patterns are important in our health. Even the placebo effect has a misunderstood, important role in medicine, showing how our psychology and the influence of caregivers can be catalysts in healing.
The change in how research is conducted is already taking place. Many medical centers are turning their time and resources to large-scale, cost-saving, systems-based approaches that analyze patient data, or practice-based research, to evaluate the effectiveness of different treatments and behaviors. As this trend continues, the future points to a place where there are generally accepted approaches to research that show in a clearer way how effective all the different treatment options are.
Community involvement is key to health care transformation. People spend most of their time outside of the health care system. We are highly social creatures, and as such, we are influenced by those around us. It is no surprise that people are more likely to stick to healthy behaviors if they develop those good habits with friends.
That is why the simplification of complex information and the streamlining of information sharing is critical. As there is a further reconciliation between traditional and conventional, some terms will become easier to explain and more familiar to many. That, when coupled with advancements in technology, will lead us to a future where people can share how they are getting healthier and encouraging their community members to follow.
As healthcare practitioners recognize the effectiveness of alternative treatments and patients demand better options for their health, the healthcare landscape globally will continue to become more and more integrated. The future of healthcare will likely include even more advancements and new medical discoveries, along with the integration of a plethora of practices that have stood the test of time.