What Role Does Alternative Medicine Play in Health Care?

A fierce controversy rages over whether alternative therapies are legitimate or not. Advocates say alternative medicine is backed by science, has been practiced for thousands of years, and work as well as if not better than Western medicine. Opponents maintain the science is flawed, and when treatments work it’s because of the placebo effect.

What’s the truth? Like everything, it’s somewhere in the middle. Let’s explore both schools of thought, and discover where they’d both shine.

Western Medicine

Western medicine is the conventional health care system, where doctors treat your symptoms and diseases using the medical treatments at their disposal. Types of conventional treatments include:

  • Medication
  • Surgery
  • Chemotherapy
  • Radiation
  • Dialysis

Conventional medicine is evidence-based and strictly regulated. Before a new drug, treatment, or medical product gets onto the market, it undergoes rigorous reviewing, testing, and licensing. Because of this, you generally don’t have to worry about safety when it comes to conventional medicine.

However, opponents say conventional medicine ignores the patient and underlying causes of his illness, instead throwing expensive (and profitable) treatments that only make him sicker.

Alternative Medicine

This field of medicine is sometimes associated with hippies, and many critics say calling it medicine is altogether misleading. It’s hard to pin down a definition for alternative medicine, since it’s really an umbrella term that covers many different practices.

We’ll use the following definition: a range of medical therapies used in place of conventional medical treatments that are not regarded as orthodox by the medical profession. Very often, these treatments are not backed by science and the evidence they work is only anecdotal. In many cases, treatment can actually be unsafe, or simply ineffective against serious diseases such as cancer.

Some examples of alternative medicine include:

  • Acupuncture
  • Homeopathy
  • Naturopathy
  • Chinese medicine
  • Chiropractic or osteopathic medicine
  • Massage
  • Yoga
  • Dietary supplements
  • Herbal medicine
  • Electromagnetic therapy
  • Meditation
  • Hypnosis

Integrative Medicine

This is a holistic, healing-oriented area of treatment that seeks to marry conventional and alternative medicine when possible. It calls for taking the whole person into account when deciding on a treatment method. In integrative medicine, practitioners encourage using alternative methods to complement conventional treatments and ease side effects.

Using methods like yoga, hypnosis, acupuncture, and dietary changes to improve your health and relieve unpleasant side effects is safe and often effective. In many areas of medicine, this is actually a proven way to maximize conventional treatments. However, sometimes—especially in the case of herbal supplements—the treatment can interact badly with any drugs you’re already on.


It’s important to remember that natural doesn’t always mean safe. Just because a treatment is touted as “all-natural,” doesn’t mean it’s safe for you or your condition. Always check with your doctor before starting any new treatment.

On the other hand, safe and proven alternative techniques like yoga can help you deal with stress. Some scientific evidence even shows that you can significantly improve stress-related symptoms with non-medical methods like yoga and hypnosis.

Bottom line: remain skeptical of doctors with fantastic claims, but don’t close yourself off to safe and natural methods of symptom relief.

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