Health Library

Alternative vs. Traditional Medicine

HCA image for fertility alternatives Complementary and traditional medicine have a lot to learn from each other. And we all have a lot to learn about how to bring the two closer together.

The Differences

Alternative medicine is often called alternative medicine, complementary medicine, complementary and alternative medicine (CAM), or non-mainstream medicine. The National Institute of Health (NIH) uses the terms complementary and integrative health and complementary health approaches.

Traditional medicine is often called allopathic, traditional, conventional, mainstream, and Western medicine, to name a few. The term traditional is used often, but it also does not seem to be exact. Many alternative medical methods have been around for thousands of years, while many conventional ones have been around much less than a century. Most of these terms are only useful in Western cultures.

The NIH defines alternative medicine as non-mainstream practices that are used in place of conventional ones. It is not very common in the US. Complementary or integrative approaches are becoming more common. They bring traditional and non-traditional practices together.

The Appeal

Alternative therapies may differ, but they all seem to share these features:

  • Empowering people to take active roles for their own health
  • Focusing on healthy habits, such as diet, activity, getting enough rest, and emotional and spiritual balance
  • Focusing on the whole person instead of a person as a series of parts
  • Lowering disease and supporting health

American Medical Association's Role

In 1847, the American Medical Association (AMA) was created to try to regulate medical care. They control state medical boards and decide whether doctors can get or keep hospital privileges, and whether they can keep their medical license. A medical license can be taken for straying from what is known as the "standard of care."

The AMA supports evidence-based medicine. Many complementary therapies do not stand up to the standards of Western medicine. The AMA urges doctors and the public to be well informed about the therapies they use to treat illnesses.

Common Criticisms

A common criticism of traditional medicine is that medical doctors treat symptoms instead of looking for the root cause of a health problem. Another is that they give medicines to mask problems. This is not entirely true. Some doctors do give medicines and use approaches to control symptoms, but they also search for the cause of symptoms.

One common criticism of alternative medical practices is the way they sometimes exaggerate an approach. For example, there are books about diets that claim to cure many health problems. The same types of claims are sometimes made about certain supplements.

Another criticism of alternative practitioners is the use of case reporting. This means telling a story of one person who did well with an approach. Any medical doctor can also tell you stories about someone who did either quite well or quite poorly with a treatment. The only way we can know whether a treatment works is through results from many patients.

The evidence-based approach looks at how likely a treatment may help a person with a certain problem. It applies a scientific process to separate outcomes due to chance from outcomes which are reproducible and more reliable.

Bridging the Gap

Integrative medicine was created to help bridge the gap and bring the two disciplines together. It refocuses medicine on health and healing. It insists on patients being treated as whole persons. They are minds, spirits, and bodies who play an active role in their own care. Today, many medical schools in the US teach integrative medicine. There are clinics and practices that accept it as well. Also, integrative medicine research studies have been published in peer reviewed journals, so treatments of both types can be evidence-based. There are many sceptics in the CAM and traditional medical communities that blame integrative medicine for being either too scientific or not scientific enough. But integrative medicine may be a good choice for people who are looking for “the best of both worlds."

Keep in mind that you should tell all your care providers about the treatments you are using. We have a lot to learn about integrating these areas of healthcare. The best place to start is with communication.


Family Doctor—American Academy of Family Physicians

National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine

Canadian Resources

Canadian Medical Association

Health Canada


AMA history. American Medical Association website. Available at: Accessed November 1, 2021.

AMA position statement: Complementary medicine—2012. AMA website. Available at: Accessed November 1, 2021.

Complementary, alternative, or integrative health: What's in a name? National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health website. Available at: Accessed November 1, 2021.

Integrative medicine. The Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center website. Available at: Accessed November 1, 2021.

The use and cost of complementary health approaches in the United States. National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health website. Available at: Accessed November 1, 2021.