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Definition of Alternative Medicine

The terms "alternative medicine", "complementary medicine" and "CAM" are generally understood in terms of their relationship to mainstream medicine, Richard Dawkins, Professor of the Public Understanding of Science at Oxford, argues for a different definition of alternative medicine, based not on sphere of usage but on evidence: "alternative medicine is defined as that set of practices which cannot be tested, refuse to be tested, or consistently fail tests. If a healing technique is demonstrated to have curative properties in properly controlled double-blind trials, it ceases to be alternative. It simply...becomes medicine." He also states that "There is no alternative medicine. There is only medicine that works and medicine that doesn't work."

Well-known proponents of evidence-based medicine who study CAM, such as the Cochrane Collaboration and Edzard Ernst, Professor of Complementary Medicine at the University of Exeter, have retained CAM's generally-accepted definition and do not define CAM as Dawkins does. In their view, there can be "good CAM" or "bad CAM" based on evidentiary support.

Additionally, what in the West is considered "alternative" medicine may elsewhere be considered "traditional" medicine - for example Chinese medicine and Ayurveda.


Jurisdiction differs concerning which branches of alternative medicine are legal, which are regulated, and which (if any) are provided by a government-controlled health service or reimbursed by a private health medical insurance company.

A number of alternative medicine advocates disagree with the restrictions of government agencies that approve medical treatments (such as the American Food and Drug Administration) and the agencies' adherence to experimental evaluation methods. They claim that this impedes those seeking to bring useful and effective treatments and approaches to the public, and protest that their contributions and discoveries are unfairly dismissed, overlooked or suppressed. Alternative medicine providers often argue that health fraud should be dealt with appropriately when it occurs.

In India, which is the home of several alternative systems of medicines, Ayurveda, Siddha, Unani, and Homeopathy are licenced by the government. Naturopathy will also be licensed soon because several Universities now offer bachelors degrees in it. Other activities connected with AM/CM, such as Panchakarma and massage therapy related to Ayurveda are also licenced by the government now.

Contemporary use of alternative medicine

Edzard Ernst wrote in the Medical Journal of Australia that "about half the general population in developed countries use complementary and alternative medicine (CAM)" (Ernst 2003). A survey (Barnes et al 2004) released in May 2004 by the National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine, part of the National Institutes of Health in the United States, found that in 2002, 36% of Americans used some form of alternative therapy in the past 12 months — a category that included yoga, meditation, herbal treatments and the Atkins diet. If prayer was counted as an alternative therapy, the figure rose to 62.1%. Another study by Astin et al (1998) suggests a similar figure of 40%. A British telephone survey by the BBC of 1209 adults in 1998 shows that around 20% of adults in Britain had used alternative medicine in the past 12 months (Ernst & White 1999)

The use of alternative medicine appears to be increasing. Eisenburg et al carried out a study in 1998 which showed that use of alternative medicine had risen from 33.8% in 1990 to 42.1% in 1997. In the United Kingdom, a 2000 report ordered by the House of Lords suggested that "limited data seem to support the idea that CAM use in the United Kingdom is high and is increasing"[3].

Medical education

Increasing numbers of medical colleges have begun offering courses in alternative medicine. For example, the University of Arizona College of Medicine offers a program in Integrative Medicine under the leadership of Dr. Andrew Weil which trains physicians in various branches of alternative medicine which "neither rejects conventional medicine, nor embraces alternative practices uncritically." [4] In three separate research surveys that surveyed the 125 medical schools offering an MD degree, the 19 medical schools offering a DO degree, and 585 schools of nursing in the United States: 60 percent of U.S. medical schools offering an MD degree teach CAM, 95% of Osteopathic medical school teach CAM, and 84.8% of US schools of nursing teach CAM. (Wetzel et al 1998, Saxon et al 2004, Fenton & Morris 2003)

In the UK, no medical schools offer courses that teach the clinical practice of alternative medicine. However, alternative medicine is taught in several schools as part of the curriculum. Teaching is based mostly on theory and understanding alternative medicine, with emphasis on being able to communicate with alternative medicine specialists. To obtain competence in practicing clinical alternative medicine, qualifications must be obtained from individual medical societies. The student must have graduated and be a qualified doctor. The British Medical Acupuncture Society, which offers medical acupuncture certificates to doctors, is one such example, as is the College of Naturopathic Medicine UK and Ireland.

Public popularity

The NCCAM surveyed the American public on complementary and alternative medicine use in 2002. According to the survey[9]:

  • 36 percent of U.S. adults age 18 years and over use some form of complementary and alternative medicine (CAM).
  • When prayer specifically for health reasons is included in the definition of CAM, the number of adults using some form of CAM in 2002 rose to 62 percent.
  • The majority of individuals (54.9%) used CAM in conjunction with conventional medicine.
  • Most people use CAM to treat and/or prevent musculoskeletal conditions or other conditions associated with chronic or recurring pain.
  • "The fact that only 14.8% of adults sought care from a licensed or certified CAM practitioner suggests that most individuals who use CAM" prefer to treat themselves."
  • "Women were more likely than men to use CAM. The largest sex differential is seen in the use of mind-body therapies including prayer specifically for health reasons".
  • "Except for the groups of therapies that included prayer specifically for health reasons, use of CAM increased as education levels increased".
  • The most common CAM therapies used in the USA in 2002 were prayer (45.2%), herbalism (18.9%), breathing meditation (11.6%), meditation (7.6%), chiropractic medicine (7.5%), yoga (5.1%), body work (5.0%), diet-based therapy (3.5%), progressive relaxation (3.0%), mega-vitamin therapy (2.8%) and Visualization (2.1%)




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