Complementary, Alternative, Integrative: What's the Difference?

It's time to set the record straight. Though they are interchanged quite regularly, complementary, alternative and integrative medicine do not mean the same thing.

 The National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine (NCCAM) defines alternative medicine as any treatment that is used in place of conventional medicine. Someone who chooses to treat an illness with an alternative therapy — could be anything from aromatherapy to massage to acupuncture — instead of seeking out regular medical care, is using alternative medicine.

The NCCAM defines complementary medicine, however, as alternative medicine that is used in conjunction with conventional medicine. This is seen in the patient who uses reflexology to relieve the pain of knee surgery or the chemotherapy patient who uses aromatherapy to fight nausea and vomiting.

In “Integrative Medicine: Bringing Medicine Back to Its Roots,” a study published in the Archives of Internal Medicine, Ralph Synderman, former excutive dean of Duke's School of Medicine and the now famous Dr. Andrew Weil, gives integrative medicine it's due:

“Integrative medicine is the term being used for a new movement that is being driven by the desires of consumers . . . it calls for restoration of the focus of medicine on health and healing and emphasizes the centrality of the patient-physician relationship. In addition to providing the best conventional care, integrative medicine focuses on preventive maintenance of health by paying attention to all relative components of lifestyle, including diet, exercise, stress management, and emotional well-being. It insists on patients being active participants in their health care as well as on physicians viewing patients as whole persons—minds, community members, and spiritual beings, as well as physical bodies. Finally, it asks physicians to serve as guides, role models, and mentors, as well as dispensers of therapeutic aids.”


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