Alternative, Holistic, Complementary...
(September 27, 2016)
… or maybe Integrative. Or even Natural.
You hear one or more of these words whenever someone wants to talk about a philosophy or technique of medical care that your grandparents’ M.D. would have referred to as “quackery”. My, how times have changed. And, for once, they've changed for the better.
The iron grip that conventional medicine held over people’s minds and hearts pretty much since the advent of antibiotics has loosened quite a bit in recent years. The realization that staying healthy is mainly in the hands of the individual to control his or her lifestyle has been revolutionary. Even empowering, if you don’t mind the word yet. Because everyone knows that you can’t beat power. Just ask Spiderman.
Those terms speak to the possibility of keeping yourself healthy outside of the huge cost and bureaucracy of modern medicine and so are very appealing and in common use. But although they are all recognizable as referring to therapies that are not drugs or surgery, past that point they can be confusing. That’s because they are hugely misused.
They are often used interchangeably, but they do not all mean the same thing. When used properly, they’ll actually tell you something. Unfortunately they are so frequently used wrongly that at I may just be muddying the waters for you by pointing out their actual meanings. At first, anyway.
Well, that can't be helped. Just be aware that when you hear somebody using one of these terms incorrectly, the speaker either doesn’t know what s/he is talking about or is trying to put one over on you. That’s useful, isn’t it?
Holistic. I have come to hate this word. That is because of all of them, it is the most misused. “Holistic” is the concept that something has meaning and existence beyond its various parts, and that you can’t understand something by just looking at those parts -- you need to consider the thing as a whole. The blind men and the elephant thing, you know. Holism is a philosophy or guiding principle that can be applied to anything alive and to many things that aren’t.
Now, holistic MEDICINE specifically has the meaning that in order to be genuinely healthy, the mind, spirit and emotions must be considered part and parcel with the body, and must be at least taken into account and probably specifically addressed as part of any healing treatment. I fervently believe in this, but the term irritates me anyway because it is almost never used correctly.
You may remember a term that is somewhat outdated now -- “mind-body medicine”. Essentially that is what holistic medicine encompasses. But THAT is not how it is generally used. Usually when you hear “holistic” these days, the speaker is talking about a treatment or type of care that is…
Alternative. “Alternative medicine” is “any of a range of medical systems that are not regarded as orthodox by the medical profession”. (Thank you, Google.) That includes acupuncture and traditional chinese medicine, homeopathy, ayurvedic medicine, and the like. "Alternative" isn’t usually used this way. It tends to be applied to any therapy at all that would make your M.D. turn green if s/he knew you were doing it.
The unspoken part of the definition here is that this “alternative” is an ALTERNATIVE to plain vanilla medical care. To mainstream western medicine. You would do it INSTEAD of conventional, orthodox medical care. In the place of drugs and surgery.
Using acupuncture alone to treat your sciatica (a wise choice, because of its efficacy, its safety and the generally poor success rate of medical treatment for it) would be an example of using alternative medicine to treat a condition instead of conventional medicine. However, if you did acupuncture AND steroid therapy together for sciatica, that would be an example of...
Complementary medicine. Caring for a problem using an alternative treatment PLUS a conventional one is complementary medicine. For example, taking probiotics along with an antibiotic. So the simple concept of using conventional and non-conventional therapies together is “complementary medicine”. But when this is done in some sort of authoritative, organized, top-down conventionally-controlled bureaucratic fashion, it’s called...
Integrative medicine. If an M.D. or medical center is in charge of this complementary care and has bureaucratically incorporated the non-conventional treatment with the conventional one as part of a plan or program that it is administering, you’ve got integrative medicine. Thusly:
There are many definitions of “integrative” health care, but all involve bringing conventional and complementary approaches together in a coordinated way. The use of integrative approaches to health and wellness has grown within care settings across the United States. Researchers are currently exploring the potential benefits of integrative health in a variety of situations, including pain management for military personnel and veterans, relief of symptoms in cancer patients and survivors, and programs to promote healthy behaviors.
See what I mean? Bureaucracy, top-down, controlled and delivered by the mainstream folks. Now I’m not saying that that is necessarily a bad thing. Complementary medicine, which is essentially trying to get the best of conventional and non-conventional medicine at the same time, is a fabulous idea. But integrative medicine, where the M.D.s are running everything, including the choice and how to deliver the non-conventional treatment – well, I’d stay on the alert. Because in the end, I just don’t trust those guys.
After all, their first love is drugs and surgery. It’s why they had to go to school for so long, why they pay such outrageous malpractice premiums, and what gives them so much money and power. They’ve had such things as exercise and nutrition forced down their throats due to popular demand and because, in the end, you cannot do it all (or even most of it) with drugs and surgery. So any time you integrate conventional and alternative treatments, don't lose sight of the power of the latter.
Just one more…
Natural. I really, really hate this term. It is almost completely meaningless. Is using electrical stimulation to control pain natural? Most of your new agey medical types would say “no”, but there isn’t a whole lot more natural to a muscle or nerve than electricity. I mean, that’s how they WORK. If you see the word “natural” someplace, your fraud detectors should beep at least once. The word “natural” doesn't really mean anything.
In a perfect world, “natural” would be meaningful and desirable. Logically, you see, if your body sees you swallowed some (natural) garlic, it knows what that is because it’s been seeing it in people’s guts for millions of years and knows what to do with it. If you swallow the subject of someone’s pharmacological chemistry Ph.D. thesis that’s only been tested on a few white mice (not natural), your body is liable to ask “urk?” and stick it someplace completely unsuitable.
So, sadly, "natural" really doesn’t mean anything. But these other words do. And now you know what. Hooray!
--dr. diane holmes
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