Don’t “Complement” Me, I’m Alternative!

Imagine two neighbors both go to the same acupuncturist for similar back conditions and receive similar care. One neighbor defines his treatment as “alternative” medicine while the other says he receives “complementary” healthcare from the acupuncturist. Which neighbor is right? Assuming they’re using the terms correctly, both patients are right. The terms “alternative” and “complementary” can both refer to healthcare systems that have been developed outside the mainstream Western medicine model. However, the words represent very different concepts.

  • When non-mainstream practices are used in conjunction with conventional medicine, it’s viewed as “complementary.”
  • When non-mainstream practices are used instead of conventional medicine, it’s called “alternative.”

So if neighbor A is seeing an acupuncturist instead of an MD and is using no other conventional methods to treat his condition–such as prescription painkillers–he is indeed receiving alternative healthcare. And if neighbor B was evaluated by a medical doctor, has received diagnostic tests such as an x-ray or MRI, is using prescription medication and is also receiving acupuncture treatments, he’s correct to say he’s getting complementary medical care.

Integrative Medicine: The New Normal

Over 30% of adults in America use non-mainstream health approaches at some point, and that number may be far higher depending on what is defined as non-mainstream. Everything from taking vitamin supplements or homeopathic cold medicines to chiropractic care, massage or meditation might be viewed as non-conventional healthcare. Because of the rising use of and interest in complementary medicine, many healthcare providers are adopting a more integrative approach—blending proven techniques from many traditions to give patients the best possible overall care.

Doctors and medical centers offering integrative medicine are becoming more common across the U.S. Medical researchers are exploring the benefits of integrative healthcare to promote healthy behaviors, to relieve pain and other symptoms in cancer patients, and in pain management for veterans and active military personnel.

The more we learn about the potential of non-invasive and non-pharmaceutical treatments, the more “conventional” integrative medicine becomes.