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Navigating health care today can be a scary adventure. If you’re at Desta Health, odds are that you’re already looking for “out of the box” solutions. The names that we use to describe “non-standard” medicine in the United States can be daunting at best.

We’re going to provide a brief introduction to the following practices; Alternative Medicine, Complementary Medicine, and Integrative Medicine. These practices offer many similarities as well as differences but all serve to provide non-standard options for patients, outside of mainstream medicine. Nearly 40% of Americans are using health care approaches outside of standard allopathic medicine. Let’s take a look at these terms.

Alternative Medicine

The National Institute of Health’s (NIH) National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine (NCCAM) defines alternative medicine as “using a non-mainstream approach in place of conventional medicine”. True alternative medicine is not very common because as the definition states, it completely replaces conventional medicine. An example of this would be a patient with cancer who refuses all conventional intervention and prefers to treat only with an ancient Chinese herb. Some alternative medicine approaches may include the following: homeopathy, hypnosis, yoga, guided imagery, massage, spinal manipulation, meditation, herbal and natural medicines, and acupuncture. If these modalities are combined in some way with conventional allopathic medicine, then it’s no longer considered “Alternative Medicine.”

Complementary Medicine

The National Institute of Health’s (NIH) National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine (NCCAM) defines complementary medicine as “using a non-mainstream approach together with conventional medicine.” Complementary medicine combines alternative medicine with conventional medicine. In this example, the same cancer patient decides to undergo radiation treatment (conventional) as well as acupuncture and a special diet (alternative above, but complementary here due to the combination with conventional medicine). This patient’s treatment plan represents complementary medicine.

Integrative Medicine

Integrative medicine is similar to that of complementary medicine and often the terms are used interchangeable. The Duke Center for Integrative Medicine defines the practice as “medical care that brings patient and practitioner together in a dynamic partnership dedicated to optimizing the patient’s health and healing. This approach focuses on the whole person, recognizing that the subtle interactions of mind, body, spirit and community have a direct impact on vitality and well-being.”

Integrative medicine manages medical problems using some conventional medicine but also takes a more broad approach; treating the patient’s symptoms as well as the whole person, treating acute problems while anticipating risk and future problems and prevention. This practice of medicine is very much a partnership. The physician and patient partner as a team to achieve goals and manage problems. The goal of true Integrative Medicine is to use evidence-based or evidence-informed options to select the best possible total treatment plan.

Putting It All Together

Another term we often hear is “Complementary and Alternative Medicine” or “CAM.” For our purposes, CAM can often describes some combination of the above. Because the term can be confusing, we feel that the above terms “Alternative” (just non-standard), “Complementary” (standard allopathic medicine plus non-standard approaches), and “Integrative” (equal weight between standard and non-standard approaches favoring what is best for the patient) are more useful.

The Benefits of Integrating Non-Conventional Medicine

Many of these alternative medicine practices have been used for centuries. Acupuncture, meditation, and yoga have been practiced across the world for hundreds of years. Use of homeopathic treatments as well as natural and herbal medicines have also served as important elements of health care for centuries. It makes sense to combine these treatments with conventional medicine. Conventional medicine has made outstanding discoveries in the last few decades especially in acute care areas, but let’s not forget the traditional healing systems in which many of our non-standard treatments are found.

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