What is Complementary and Alternative Medicine (CAM)?

What is Complementary and Alternative Medicine (CAM)?

What is Complementary and Alternative Medicine (CAM)?

There’s a lot of terms for medicine today, aren't there? There’s integrative medicine, functional medicine, naturopathic medicine, conventional medicine, and complementary and alternative medicine, abbreviated as CAM. In previous posts we’ve looked at these different terms for medicine. Here, let’s look at complementary and alternative medicine.


What is Complementary and Alternative Medicine (CAM)?

Complementary and alternative medicine describes a medical approach that offers patients a holistic and more comprehensive approach to healthcare that includes a wider variety of science-backed therapies for the prevention and treatment of chronic conditions, illness and disease.

The National Institutes of Health National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health provides individual definitions for complementary medicine and alternative medicine. It says[i]:

  • “Complementary” medicine refers to a non-mainstream practice used “together with” conventional medicine.

  • “Alternative” medicine describes a medical practice that uses non-mainstream practices “in place of” conventional medicine.

In general practice, most people use alternative medicine to complement their health.


CAM: An Approach to Healthcare More Than a Practice

Complementary and alternative medicine is really more an approach to healthcare than an actual practice. The practice of medicine requires schooling, training and licensing.

  • Medical doctors (MDs) who practice conventional medicine go to traditional Western medical schools. This includes many areas of specialization.

  • Naturopathic doctors (NDs) who practice naturopathic medicine also go to accredited medical schools, earn degrees and take licensing exams. Many also choose areas of specialization.

  • Practitioners of other therapies like acupuncture or massage go through their own certifications or licensing programs.

While medical doctors practice conventional medicine, naturopathic doctors include what would be termed alternative treatments in their practice. And according to the Therapeutic Order practiced by naturopathic doctors, the approaches of conventional fit within their practice when needed to protect the life and limb of a patient.

In reality, alternative treatments provided by naturopathic doctors and other licensed healthcare professionals such as acupuncturists and nutritionists are practical, nature-based therapies human society has relied on for thousands of years. As scientific research into many of these therapies has progressed, many of these non-invasive, plant-based therapies (especially those from medical traditions like Ayurveda and Traditional Chinese Medicine) have been demonstrated to be highly effective and safer than common conventional treatments.


At the Intersection of Modern Medicine and Science

Western medicine, or conventional medicine, has prospered for nearly 100 years as it introduced novel approaches to healthcare. Its application of biology, chemistry and physics combined with pharmaceuticals like antibiotics made it highly effective as a way to deliver an aggressive response to disease and illness.

In recent years, conventional medicine has faced increasing challenges. An inability to successfully address the rise in chronic conditions and the harsh side effects that can come with pharmaceutical drug use have made complementary and alternative medicine highly desirable. Interest in CAM continues to grow as more and more studies show many plant-based remedies work as well as drugs, just without the side effects.

The science supports the effectiveness and benefits of natural medicine. This explains the immense growth in integrative medicine, an approach that involves coordinating natural and conventional approaches to promote health and disease prevention in patients. In this way, complementary medicine is very similar to integrative care with the only difference being the coordinated engagement between conventional medical doctors and naturopathic doctors, as well as other licensed healthcare practitioners.

The continued growth in popularity and practice of complementary and alternative medicine with patients and doctors promises to be a win-win. It will be a win for patients who desire safe, non-invasive approaches to promote health and longevity while preventing disease. And it will be a win for doctors who will have more science-based tools at their disposal to protect the health of their patients.

[i] https://nccih.nih.gov/health/integrative-health

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