Alternative Health Care

Modern medicine has had many outstanding successes. During most of the 20th century, conventional modern medicine (also called allopathic medicine) waged a war on disease. It made great strides toward the control or eradication of many dreaded illnesses, such as smallpox, polio, and malaria, and it made great advances in the treatment of heart attacks, strokes, and cancer. Allopathic medicine has been especially successful in treating life-threatening diseases and trauma.

As a result of the successes of modern medicine, many people began to believe there would eventually be a "magic bullet" for everything. All they had to do was find the physician with the right pill, treatment, or surgery, and they could conquer any medical problem. People in the medical professions, especially doctors and hospitals, were seen as having all the answers.

Many, perhaps most, Americans became accustomed to considering the medical establishment to be in charge of their health. They believed that they could live any way they wanted, and when they got sick, doctors could fix them. People seemed to think that they could eat junk food, be couch potatoes, and subject themselves to enormous amounts of stress and then go to a doctor for a magic bullet to cure what ailed them. To a great extent, many individuals gave control of their health to the medical establishment.

Health care providers accepted control and adopted an increasingly authoritarian attitude. Modern medicine developed more weapons to fight disease that were more specialized, mechanized, and expensive. With the increasing specialization and mechanization of health care, costs rose far beyond the means of the average individual.

By the 1970s, it became increasingly apparent that modern medicine did not have all the answers. Many chronic (long-term) conditions did not respond well to allopathic medical treatment. Some side effects and cures proved to be worse than diseases. A sense of alienation was growing between patients and health care providers. Busy medical practitioners had little or no time to spend with their patients. Individuals were unable to communicate meaningfully with their health care providers, and they felt cut off and frustrated. On top of everything else, the cost of medical care skyrocketed.

People began looking for different ways to meet their health care needs. They turned to practitioners of systems of health care that were not part of the mainstream medical establishment. In the 1980s, the term alternative medicine came into use. It was used to refer to medical systems, modalities, or treatments that were not generally taught at conventional medical schools in the United States. These approaches to healing were seen as "alternative" to conventional medicine, that is, they were used in place of allopathic medicine.

Many of the alternative systems, such as traditional Oriental medicine, had histories that dated back hundreds of years. Other systems, such as chiropractic, were of more recent origin. People were attracted to these systems because they talked with other individuals who said a certain approach had helped them.

Alternative health care systems were able to help precisely because they were very different from modern medicine. Their strengths were in working with chronic illness, not with acute, life-threatening disease or injury. Their approach to clients was more cooperative, not authoritarian, and their therapies were more natural, not mechanized. As a result of these characteristics, alternative therapies were also comparatively cost effective.

Because alternative systems helped fill the gaps left by the failures of conventional medicine, the public interest in alternative health care grew rapidly. Some conventional doctors also became interested and began to incorporate alternative therapies into their own practices. Over the years, a number of terms have developed to describe the relationships between conventional and alternative care.

In the early 1990s, the expression complementary medicine came into use. Doctors and hospitals frequently used the term to reflect the fact that they used an alternative treatment not as an alternate to conventional treatment, but rather in addition to it. The conventional treatment was still considered to be primary, and the other systems of medicine played a secondary role.

The most recent term used to describe the interrelationship between alternative and conventional medicine is integrative medicine. In integrative medicine, the focus is on the needs of the individual patient. No preference is given to conventional or alternative approaches. Both are used as indicated by the patient's condition.

Whether they called it alternative, complementary, or integrative, patients and health care providers are turning in increasing numbers to these health care approaches. Health care providers want to help people get well, and people who are ill want to get better, so the health care crisis is, indeed, a crisis for both health care providers and for individuals. Alternative systems address many of the issues of the health care crisis.

Some people have lost confidence in modern medicine because it is not always effective in addressing many chronic diseases. Many alternative systems excel in alleviating chronic pain and illness.

Some practitioners and patients alike feel alienated by conventional medicine. With its client-centered, whole-person approach, alternative health care bridges the gap between health care professionals and clients and establishes a sense of partnership.

The high costs of specialization and mechanization have driven the cost of health care ever higher. Alternative systems focus on prevention, wellness, and natural remedies, all of which are less expensive than mechanized, high-tech, chemical strategies. Alternative health care approaches offer many potential solutions to the health care crisis.

Prompted by the immense public interest and the skyrocketing cost of health care, the government created the Office of Alternative Medicine (OAM) in 1991. The OAM was originally established as a part of the National Institutes of Health. In 1998, the OAM was elevated to the National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine (NCCAM). This center has a much broader scope and more power to conduct research in the field of alternative health care than OAM did. The mission of the NCCAM "is to define, through rigorous scientific investigation, the usefulness and safety of complementary and alternative medicine interventions and their roles in improving health and health care." This mission is achieved through three types of research—basic, translational ("bench-to-bedside"), and clinical research. In addition, the NCCAM sponsors and training, education, and outreach programs.

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