Alternative Medicine, Complementary, Integrative, Wellness, Holistic - What Do They All Mean?


Alternative medicine has grown in so many ways in North America. More people are visiting alternative medical practitioners than Western medical doctors. People spend more money on alternative medicine than they do out-of-pocket on Western medicine.

Another way that alternative medicine has grown is in the different labels. We have so many!

What do they all mean?

All these terms refer to a wide variety of healthcare practices originating from various countries and cultures. They include acupuncture, yoga, herbs, vitamin therapy, nutrition, exercise, reiki, reflexology, polarity and many, many other therapies.

However, each label also has its own unique twist when referring to this set of practices.

Let me take the labels one-by-one and give you a short description. Please note that these are my descriptions for each term, and other people may not agree. But I think I'm using the most widely-used definitions here.

Alternative Medicine

The term alternative medicine is probably the oldest and most widely used term. Unfortunately, it is also the most misleading.

Alternative medicine means that these healthcare practices (acupuncture, yoga, etc.) are used instead of Western medicine. A patient swears off any type of pharmaceutical drug or surgical technique and uses only Chinese medicine or homeopathy or whatever.

This hardly ever happens. Few patients are so myopic to close themselves off from all Western medical treatments. It really isn't advisable. I know many, many holistic practitioners and I've never heard any of them advise a patient to close themselves off from Western medicine. How silly! Western medicine has its own benefits to offer too, why ignore them.

But, that is the real definition of alternative medicine. You can see why it is being phased out slowly.

Complementary Medicine

A newer term is complementary medicine. This means that the practices I list above may be used as a complement to Western medicine. You go to your doctor, and he prescribes some drugs and/or surgery, then if that doesn't work, he asks you to try some other complementary approaches. Or, it may also mean when the above practices are used side-by-side with Western medicine. An example of this is when acupuncture is used for chemotherapy cancer patients to relieve the nausea and pain. This would be considered complementary medicine.

Be careful of the spelling here too. Complementary means a side-by-side approach to medicine. Complimentary means that it is free, no charge.

Integrative Medicine

A term pioneered by Dr. Andrew Weil from the University of Arizona is integrative medicine.

This means that physicians (Western and otherwise) have an integrated system of medicine that involves certain pieces of Western medicine and certain parts from the Chinese, Indian, etc. therapies that I listed above. All the therapies intermix and you have the best possible "super therapy" as a result.

As much as I like and respect Dr. Weil, I have to say that my experience says that truly integrative medicine does not yet exist anywhere yet. I've never seen a physician or any kind of practitioner who has an integrated plan for his patients that includes little bits of Western medicine and bits from multiple holistic practices.

This is probably the "Holy Grail" of medicine, but I think it will be a long time coming. The clinics that proclaim themselves to be "integrative medicine" centers are usually just a collection of different practitioners who share the rent together in one building. True integration would be great, I just haven't seen it happen.

Wellness

If the previous terms have been misleading or overly optimistic, this term is really succinct and accurate. The term wellness applies to everything a person does to stay well. It is all about prevention and achieving the greatest health a person can achieve.

This is extremely accurate in describing the Chinese or Indian systems of medicine. And it is the best possible advice for patients, to get them on the track of staying well, rather than fixing illnesses.

But, as you might guess, this term has a problem too. (Don't they all?) Wellness has been hijacked as a label for "early detection of disease." Many hospitals have a "Wellness Center" where they conduct cancer screenings and do unnecessary MRI scans to look for problems or potential problems. These are great profit centers for the hospitals, but unfortunately they have ZERO to do with wellness.

Wellness is about eating right, getting enough sleep, exercising, taking the right herbs and having great relationships. It is NOT about early detection of disease. That doesn't help you stay well, it just allows you to jump on an illness before it has the chance to become life-threatening. Valuable, sure, but it is not wellness.

Holistic Health

Finally, we come to the term holistic health. You could also call it holistic medicine or holistic practices. It is also sometimes spelled "wholistic."

Holistic comes from "the whole." It means to take a person as a whole being. The Chinese and Indian healing systems see a person, not just as a physical body, but as a body-mind-spirit. Their healing practices allow for all parts of the person and treat all parts equally. They have methodologies for solving problems in all three areas, and especially for finding problems that crisscross between body, mind and spirit (which most health problems do).

Holistic health is my favorite term. It too has problems, though. Sometimes, holistic health is perceived as a "New Age" term, evoking angels and witches and crystal balls. These off-beat practices can certainly be included as part of holistic health, but they are not at its center. Practices like naturopathy, homeopathy, Chinese medicine, Indian ayurveda are truly about holistic health.

But it will be hard to shake the New Age association for people who use the term holistic health.

There's your whirlwind tour of definitions for alternative medicine. I hope this has been helpful. Use the definition that makes most sense to you. And be well!


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