Health Library

Alternative vs. Traditional Medicine

HCA image for fertility alternatives Complementary and traditional medicine have a great deal to learn from each other. And we all have a lot to learn in terms of bringing the two closer together.

The Differences

Alternative medicine is referred to in many different ways—alternative medicine, complementary medicine, complementary and alternative medicine (CAM), or non-mainstream medicine. National Institute of Health (NIH) uses complementary and integrative health, and complementary health approaches.

Traditional medicine is also referred to in many different ways—allopathic, traditional, conventional, mainstream, and Western medicine, to name a few. The term traditional, although used quite commonly, seems somewhat inaccurate, given that many alternative medical disciplines have been around for thousands of years, while many conventional practices have been around much less than a century. Most of these terms, actually, are only relevant in the context of Western culture.

The NIH defines alternative medicine as non-mainstream practices that are used in place of conventional medicine. As such, alternative medicine, by definition, is not very common in the US. Complementary or integrative approaches, which bring traditional and non-traditional practices together, are becoming more common.

The Appeal of Integrative Medicine

What is the appeal of integrative medicine? Although the approach and focus of different types of alternative therapies may differ, they all seem to share the following characteristics:

  • Empowerment of the individual to participate in and take responsibility for his or her own health
  • Recognition and emphasis on lifestyle issues, such as proper nutrition, exercise, adequate rest, and emotional and spiritual balance
  • Treatment of the individual as a whole person, as opposed to a series of parts
  • Emphasis on preventing disease and maintaining health

American Medical Association's Role

In 1847, the American Medical Association (AMA) was established to try to regulate medical care. This governing body controls state medical boards and determines whether doctors can receive or maintain hospital privileges, and whether they can keep their medical license. A medical license can be revoked for a reason secondary to incompetence, which is essentially defined as deviating from what is known as the "standard of care."

The AMA supports evidence-based medicine. In doing, so it points out that many complementary therapies do not stand up to the rigorous standards of Western medical practices. The organization encourages both doctors and consumers to be well informed of the therapies they use in treating various illnesses, especially in children.

Common Criticisms—From Both Sides

A common criticism of traditional medicine is that medical doctors treat symptoms, such as pain or fever, without searching for the root cause and that they tend to give medications to try to mask these symptoms. This is not entirely true. Although it is true that doctors often give medications or use approaches to control symptoms, they also search for causes of symptoms, such as infection or inflammation, in order to be able to treat them allopathically.

Looking in the other direction, one frequent criticism of alternative medical practices is the occasional sensationalism in reporting the merits of a particular approach. For example, there are books about certain dietary approaches that claim to cure a whole host of ailments. The same types of claims are sometimes made about particular supplements.

Another criticism of alternative practitioners is the method of case reporting—in other words, telling a story, or what we refer to as an anecdote, of someone who did quite well with a particular approach. Any medical doctor can also tell you individual stories about someone who did either quite well or quite poorly with one or another method of treatment. It requires experience with results from many patients before we can be reasonably sure that a treatment may work.

The objective approach, the so-called evidence-based approach is intended to look at how likely a particular treatment is to help a person with a certain problem. Evidence-based medicine is the application of a scientific process to distinguish outcomes due to chance from outcomes which are reproducible and, therefore, presumably more reliable.

Bridging the Gap

In order to help bridge the gap and bring the two disciplines together, integrative medicine was created. Integrative medicine refocuses medicine on health and healing. It insists on patients being treated as whole persons—minds and spirits, as well as physical bodies— who participate actively in their own healthcare. Today, many medical schools in the US teach the principles and practice of integrative medicine. There are clinics and practices that embrace its philosophy. Also, integrative medicine research studies have been published in peer reviewed journals, so treatments of both types can be evidence-based. Naturally, there are many sceptics within both CAM and traditional medical communities that blame integrative medicine for being either too scientific or not scientific enough. For those who would like “the best of the two worlds,” integrative medicine practice may be a good choice.

One important thing to remember is you should share with your practitioners what other treatments you are receiving. You should let your alternative care practitioner know of any traditional medicine treatments you are receiving and you should let your traditional medicine doctor know about any alternative medicine treatments you are receiving. We all have a great deal to learn in terms of integrating these important areas of healthcare, and communication is one of the best places to begin.


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 February 23, 2017.

AMA position statement: Complementary medicine—2012. AMA website. Available at: Accessed February 23, 2016.

Complementary, alternative, or integrative health: What's in a name? National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health website. Available at: Updated June 2016. Accessed February 23, 2017.

Integrative medicine. The Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center website. Available at: Accessed February 23, 2017.

Straus SE, McAlister FA. Evidence-based medicine: a commentary on common criticisms. CMAJ. 2000;163(7):837-841.

Use of complementary health approaches in the US. National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health website. Available at: Updated March 22, 2016. Accessed February 23, 2017.