Using synthetic drugs and surgery to treat health conditions was known just a few decades ago as, simply, “medicine.” Today, this system is increasingly being termed “conventional medicine.” This is the kind of medicine most Americans still encounter in hospitals and clinics. Often both expensive and invasive, it is also very good at some things; for example, handling emergency conditions such as massive injury or a life-threatening stroke. Some conventional medicine is scientifically validated, some is not.
Any therapy that is typically excluded by conventional medicine, and that patients use instead of conventional medicine, is known as “alternative medicine.” It’s a catch-all term that includes hundreds of old and new practices ranging from acupuncture to homeopathy to iridology. Generally alternative therapies are closer to nature, cheaper and less invasive than conventional therapies, although there are exceptions. Some alternative therapies are scientifically validated, some are not. An alternative medicine practice that is used in conjunction with a conventional one is known as a “complementary” medicine. Example: using ginger syrup to prevent nausea during chemotherapy. Together, complementary and alternative medicines are often referred to by the acronym CAM.
Enter integrative medicine. As defined by the National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine at the National Institutes of Health, integrative medicine “combines mainstream medical therapies and CAM therapies for which there is some high-quality scientific evidence of safety and effectiveness.”
In other words, integrative medicine “cherry picks” the very best, scientifically validated therapies from both conventional and CAM systems. Integrative medicine practitioners are not wedded to a particular dogma, Western or Eastern, only to the get-the-patient-better philosophy.
In summary then, integrative medicine is healing oriented medicine that takes account of the whole person (body, mind, and spirit), including all aspects of lifestyle. It emphasizes the therapeutic relationship and makes use of all appropriate therapies, both conventional and alternative.