Is alternative medicine complementary to integrative health care?

How’s one to know? Gene S Lysko Medical Writer

A dynamic and evolving approach to medicine is gaining acceptance among both patients and health care providers. It’s called integrative medicine. At its core are 3 fundamental concepts that are commonly referred to by the following terms:

  •  Alternative,
  • Complementary, and
  • Conventional medicine

Patients and health care professionals sometimes mistakenly use these terms, often combining or interchanging them. The result can be confusion about, and even outright dismissal of, several beneficial forms of health care.

Let’s begin to clarify the conversation by defining the basic concepts. The NIH’s National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine (NCCAM), charged with defining the usefulness of complementary health approaches and their roles in health care, recognizes that there’s some misunderstanding. As a result, NCCAM defines the complementary approach as one that uses a nonmainstream approach together with conventional medicine. Alternative, according to NCCAM, refers to using a nonmainstream approach in place of conventional medicine.

While NCCAM does not concisely define integrative medicine or health care, it suggests that the phrase “complementary health approaches” is a more appropriate substitute. Clear?

Some clarity about integrative medicine

Duke Medicine, as reported by US News and World Report, defines integrative medicine as “…the practice of medicine that focuses on the whole person and makes use of all appropriate therapeutic approaches, healthcare professionals, and disciplines to achieve optimal health and healing.”

In this context, integrative medicine is a combination of state-of-the-art, conventional medical treatments, and other therapies known to be safe and effective. Fundamentally, integrative medicine should be viewed through the lens of health and wellness, rather than being predicated on a disease model.

How is integrative medicine different from conventional medicine?

One way to illustrate the differences is to compare them side by side. Duke Integrative Medicine ( provides just such a clean snapshot of the differences.


What integrative medicine does What conventional medicine does
Optimizes an individual’s health Manages disease
Treats the whole person Treats the patient’s symptoms
Identifies the risk and minimizes it Finds the problem and fixes it
Uses high-touch, whole-person approaches Uses high-tech, biomedical interventions
Proactive; anticipates possible health issues and promotes prevention Reactive; reacts to existing health issues


Integrative medicine also works differently than conventional medicine. These differences may be summarized and compared as follows:


How integrative medicine works How conventional medicine works
Plans for wellness and optimal health across the individual’s life span Intervenes as needed
Supports patients to help them reach optimal health goals Relies on the patient to reach his or her own health goals
Guided by a partnership between patient, physician, and a team of specialized experts Directed by the physician


Some specifics

NCCAM divides its complementary health approaches into 2 groups: natural products that include herbs, vitamins, minerals, and probiotics, and mind and body practices. Mind and body practices include diverse methods administered by a trained professional or teacher. Examples of mind and body practices that are safe and effective include:

  •  Acupuncture
  • Healing touch or biofield therapies
  • Hypnotherapy, a state of focused attention and altered consciousness
  • Massage therapy
  • Meditation and other mindfulness techniques
  • Movement therapies such as Pilates and Structural Integration
  • Relaxation techniques including guided imagery and deep breathing
  • Spinal manipulation
  • Tai chi and Qigong
  • Yoga

Integrative medicine and you

The trend toward integrative medicine is happening right now, and its acceptance is rapidly growing among health care providers and health care systems. While evidence is lacking in some areas, the safety and effectiveness of complementary and alternative health care practices are well known and established in others. Whether you are a patient or a health care provider, you may benefit from an understanding of the movement toward integrated medicine.

That’s where Artcraft Health Education can help. We provide education for both patients and health care professionals. Visit our website at to learn more.