Integrative/Alternative Medicine: Understanding Medical Beliefs

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Ayurvedic Medicine has been practiced in India for thousands of years. Image by GaborfromHungary

How does Western medical philosophy combine with less-traditional medical beliefs? Thanks to multiculturalism, Integrative Medicine is becoming more mainstream among practitioners.

Multiculturalism and Medicine

During the second half of the twentieth century, the concept of multiculturalism (i.e.- the coexistence of cultural and religious diversity) as a positive influence on society became widespread.

Westerners, in particular, began exploring many aspects of other cultures, and many developed an open-minded approach to adopting such cultural artifacts and practices as styles of music and fashion, yoga, meditation, and non-Western traditional medical systems.

With the expansion of globalization in the late twentieth century, non-Western medical practices such as Traditional Chinese Medicine started to enter the mainstream. Thus, in the late 1990s, the field of Integrative Medicine (also called Integrated Medicine) became established in the USA.

Integrative Medicine is based on the principle that no single medical system is perfect, and that combining elements of various medical systems in an intelligent and informed manner achieves and maintains better health.

CAM is the acronym for Complementary and Alternative Medicine. It is the most frequently used term in the USA to denote the combined use of Western (conventional) medicine with different medical systems.

The terms CAM and Integrative Medicine (or Integrated Medicine) express the most basic principle of this approach to health: that of using – or integrating – several medical systems in a complementary manner. Conventional Western medicine is not rejected, nor are alternative medical systems used uncritically.

Basic Principles of Integrative Medicine

The basic principles of Integrative Medicine include the belief that health and well-being are the most natural conditions, and that the human body has an inborn ability to heal itself. Practitioners believe that medical intervention should support and facilitate that ability. The most effective treatments, they say, are therefore those that are most natural and least invasive.

Doctors who practice various alternative medicine techniques believe that medical caregivers should individualize and personalize all treatment. There is a strong belief that no one-size-fits-all treatment exists for any medical condition or illness. Medical treatment should treat the person, rather than the disease, and therefore the doctor should base treatment on the unique individual traits and needs of the patient.

Furthermore, both doctors of Western Medicine (MDs) and doctors of Oriental Medicine (OMDs) agree that a healthy diet and lifestyle maintains and supports good health, so the individual needs to take an active role in the prevention of illness.

Integrative Medicine holds that, since the mind and the body are not separate entities, emotional and social factors influence one’s health.

Whereas, in the past, people viewed the doctor as the only genuine medical authority, Integrative Medicine holds that the patient seeking help is the authentic expert on his/her own health, having lived inside his/her own body for a whole lifetime.

Supporters of Integrative Medicone therefore consider the patient and the medical professional as partners in the healing process. The role of the medical professional is to diagnose and recommend possible treatments, rather than to maintain that only one treatment is available or desirable. The patient thus has the ultimate control in deciding which treatment would be most appropriate and beneficial. This is known as “patient empowerment.”

Traditional Chinese Medicine takes the various meridians of the human body into account for health and massage. Image by KVDP

The Spread of CAM/Integrative Medicine in the USA

Throughout the 1990s, experts conducted research on the use of CAM/Integrative Medicine in the USA. One survey, published in the Journal of the American Medical Association, indicated that visits to alternative medicine practitioners increased from 427 million in 1990 to 629 million in 1997. This was greater than the number of visits to all US primary care physicians.  

The Osher Center for Integrative Medicine at the University of California, San Francisco, provides the following information on the development of integrative medicine in the USA from 1992 to 2004: 

“In 1992, the Office of Alternative Medicine (OAM) was founded as part of the National Institutes of Health (NIH). Its annual budget was $2 million. In 1998, the OAM was renamed the National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health (NCCIH). NCCIH’s budget for research in 2005 was $121 million, reflecting the growing popularity and acceptance of CAM/Integrative Medicine.”

In 2002, a survey of 31,000 American adults revealed that 38% – 62% used CAM during the preceding year (depending on the types of treatments included in the definition of CAM).

Not only has the popularity of Integrative Medicine grown among patients, but the acceptance of various integrated medical practices has become widespread among Western medical professionals in recent years, as well. For example, in 2005, the Institute of Medicine of the National Academies recommended that health profession schools should incorporate information about CAM into the standard curriculum, so that licensed professionals would be able to advise their patients about it.

Research and Scientific Investigation

Integrative Medicine acknowledges that medicine must be based on scientific inquiry. Many non-Western medical systems have developed outside of a rigorous scientific context.

Nowadays, the National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health (NCCIH) requires the testing of non-Western medical practices by Western research standards. This is meant to guarantee that non-Western medical treatments are both safe and effective.

The backbone of Western medicine is research that professionals can replicate and validate over and over again by objective standards.

Nowadays, the various medical traditions that comprise the field of Integrative Medicine are all being subjected to this kind of objective analysis. The results of current research will pave the way to greater integration of the various medical traditions in the future. In this way, doctors will tailor health practices to meet the very specific needs of each individual patient.

The Best of Both Worlds?

Dr. Andrew Weill is a medical doctor, teacher, and writer of many books and articles on holistic health. He is the founder and director of the Arizona Center for Integrative Medicine at the University of Arizona, where he teaches. Weill defines Integrative Medicine as “the intelligent combination of Western and alternative medicine” He views it as “the best of both worlds.”

Integrative Medicine: The Philosophy

Brad Lemley sums up the philosophy of Integrative Medicine when he says that this approach to medicine “cherry picks” the best scientifically validated therapies that conventional Western and alternative medical systems have to offer.

When it comes to your health, shouldn’t every person should have to right to choose and enjoy the best resources gathered and perfected throughout human history?

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