Something is wrong. Americans are spending far more on health care than other countries, yet have shorter life expectancies, more chronic illness and poor health outcomes. Seventy percent of Americans take at least one prescription drug and millions of them suffer adverse reactions from those drugs every year. Hospitals are apparently dangerous as well, with medical errors being the third leading cause of death in the U.S.
Not surprisingly, Americans are showing a growing interest in alternative medicine, spending 14.9 billion on alternative pain treatments alone, according to the 2007 National Health Interview Survey. Dietary supplements sold in 2012 totaled 32.5 billion. Millennials are leading the movement, with 32 to 40 percent more likely to use alternative health care.
Because there are many different types of alternative medical practices, the terminology can get confusing. The World Health Organization (WHO) defines Western medicine, biomedicine, scientific or modern medicine as allopathic medicine. The WHO conducted a review of the legal status of alternative types of medical practices in 123 countries in 2001 and the following categories emerged:
- Complementary/alternative: Interchangeable terms that suggest practices used in addition to, but not part of, allopathic practices
- Herbal medicine: Plants or products made from plants used in the practice of phytotherapy
- Traditional medicine: A wide range of knowledge and practices, often culturally based, that include plant, animal, mineral, spiritual and manual approaches to maintain well-being and cure illness
- Ayurveda: In Sanskrit, ayurveda means “science of life” and is an ancient, Southeast Asian philosophy from the 10th century B.C. Life is based on harmony between the five elements: sky, air, earth, fire and water.
- Chinese/Eastern traditional medicine: This ancient view of human health from the eighth century B.C. is based on a balance of energy, or Qi, yin and yang, and five elements: metal, wood, fire, water and earth. Health is maintained and illness cured mainly through exercises, breathing, diet, herbal medicines and acupuncture. Surgery is rarely performed.
- Chiropractics: A practice that originated in America in the late 1800s that is centered on the nervous system, and emphasizes alignment and manipulation of the joints and spine
- Homeopathy: Homeopathic medicines are intended to stimulate the body to heal the disease, described by Hippocrates around 400 B.C. but formalized by Samuel Hahnemann in Germany in the early 1800s.
- Unani or Arabic medicine: Like homeopathy, Unani is also based on Hippocrates, but incorporates traditional practices from ancient China, India, Persia, Syria and Egypt.
Naturopathy is another term commonly used to refer to the principle that the body heals itself when given the proper nutrition, hydration, oxygen, sleep, etc. All of these approaches appear to have a foundation in nature and spontaneous healing. Humans are generally viewed as existing with nature through mind, body and spirit, and illness as an imbalance that can always be restored.
Allopathic medicine views humans in a much more compartmentalized fashion, and illness as a need for symptom relief. Allopathic medicine is considered medically necessary in the U.S., and insurance companies are mandated to cover it. In some cases, not seeking allopathic medicine has been considered a crime and medical neglect.
Combining approaches to care
The National Institutes of Health established the National Center for Complementary and Integrated Health in 1998 to fund and conduct research on complementary approaches to determine “what is promising, what helps and why, what doesn’t work, and what is safe.” Different types of alternative practices may complement one another. However, allopathic medicine and alternative wellness do not necessarily complement one another and may be difficult to integrate. For example, allopathic treatment for cancer typically includes surgery, radiation and/or chemotherapy. When healthy tissue is removed, destroyed or altered with such treatments, many forms of alternative wellness can no longer work when the body’s natural ability to heal itself is destroyed. Even proponents of allopathic medicine agree that the two approaches are not very compatible and wish to defund the NCCIH.
Attitudes and agendas
Powerful critics of alternative wellness include organizations and corporations comprising pharmaceutical science-based medicine. Claims that certain methods are unproven quackery ignore the fact that certain healing methods have sustained humankind for millennia. Also, clinical trials lack support from the pharmaceutical industry for obvious reasons. Others claim alternative wellness is not regulated enough. While there are scams and fraud in every industry, the Food and Drug Administration is responsible for protecting the public from unsafe alternative medicines and health products.
Alternative wellness in America is generally not encouraged in the media, the health care system or the legislature. The Affordable Care Act does not consider any non-allopathic practices as medically necessary, so insurance companies do not have to cover them. Fortunately for those who want alternative medicine, some states do cover some alternative practices, at least for now. For example, California mandates coverage for acupuncture and chiropractic services. Some insurance companies do cover alternative medical services, but individual plans vary.
The news out of Switzerland is that, as of May 2017, health insurance plans will cover alternative wellness, including homeopathy, acupuncture, traditional Chinese medicine, herbal medicine and holistic medicine. The people of Switzerland spoke out after alternative medical practices were blocked in 2005. This new focus on healing is expected to lower health care costs and improve outcomes, a great reward for the people of Switzerland for standing up for their health care freedom.
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About the author
Dana Connolly, Ph.D., is a senior staff writer for the Sovereign Health Group, where she translates current research into practical information. She earned her Ph.D. in research and theory development from New York University and has decades of experience in clinical care, medical research and health education. The Sovereign Health Group is a health information resource and Dr. Connolly helps to ensure excellence in our model. For more information and other inquiries about this article, contact the author at firstname.lastname@example.org.