Any therapy typically excluded by conventional medicine, and that patients use instead of conventional medicine, is known by the catch-all term "alternative medicine." Alternative therapies are generally perceived as being closer to nature, less expensive and less invasive than conventional therapies, although there are exceptions. Some alternative therapies are scientifically validated, some are not.
When an alternative medicine practice is used in conjunction with a conventional one the approach is called "complementary." Together, complementary and alternative medicines are referred to as CAM.
Integrative medicine can be defined as healing-oriented medicine that takes account of the whole person, including all aspects of diet and lifestyle. It emphasizes the therapeutic relationship and makes use of all appropriate therapies to facilitate the body's innate healing response. Practitioners of integrative medicine neither reject conventional medicine nor accept alternative medicine uncritically, but recognize that good medicine is based in good science and must be open to new paradigms.
Use of alternative medicine is but one component of integrative medicine. It attracts the most attention and the harshest criticism. But is nutrition counseling alternative? How about exercise recommendations? What about prescribing botanicals such as saw palmetto for benign prostatic hyperplasia or red rice yeast to lower cholesterol? There is as much or more hard science establishing the efficacy and safety of these therapies as there is behind drug interventions.
The difference is that, because they are not based on patentable molecules, their profit potential is modest. Clearly, many effective therapies in the U.S. remain "alternative" simply because they lack the potential to generate vast wealth for stockholders.
The study of traditional systems such as Chinese medicine and Ayurveda, as well other therapeutic approaches, is important because some have great potential to lower health care costs as well as improve outcomes, and because it is necessary to identify the strengths and weaknesses of these interventions. The variety of alternative medicine treatments available runs the gamut from very intelligent to very foolish, and some are dangerous.
Doctors must be able to discriminate between what is safe and potentially effective for their patients, and what is not. Most users of alternative medicine would welcome the opportunity to meet with a medically trained person, such as an MD, who was intellectually flexible and possessed knowledge of therapeutic approaches beyond conventional medicine and who could objectively advise them.
Integrative medicine has much broader goals than simply bringing appropriate complementary and alternative therapies into mainstream practice. In particular, it aims to: