Themes of holism, empowerment, access, and legitimacy define complementary, alternative, and integrative medicine in relation to conventional biomedicine

J Altern Complement Med. 2003 Dec;9(6):937-47. doi: 10.1089/107555303771952271.


Complementary and alternative medicine (CAM) has been defined largely in relation to conventional biomedicine. CAM therapies that are used instead of conventional medicine are termed "alternative." CAM therapies used alongside conventional medicine are said to be "complementary." "Integrative medicine" results from the thoughtful incorporation of concepts, values, and practices from alternative, complementary, and conventional medicines. The evolving process of integration between CAM and conventional medicine evokes new conceptual frameworks, as well as new terminology. Interview-based qualitative research at the University of Wisconsin-Madison seeks to probe and develop this theoretical structure. Interviews with users and practitioners of CAM therapies have revealed four primary themes: holism, empowerment, access, and legitimacy (HEAL). These themes characterize CAM and contrast it with conventional medicine. CAM is said to be more holistic and empowering yet less legitimate than conventional medicine. CAM is more intuitive; conventional is more deductive. While CAM is perhaps more psychologically accessible to many patients in that it better reflects commonly held values, it is often less financially and institutionally accessible, at least for those with conventional health insurance and limited income. Substantive barriers--including economic, organizational and scientific differences, as well as an apparent widespread lack of understanding--continue to thwart attempts at integration. More and better evidence is needed if CAM therapies are to be accepted by mainstream medicine. State-of-the-art research methods developed by conventional science will be needed to test CAM therapies. Conventional medicine, however, has much to learn from CAM. By incorporating a more holistic, empowering and accessible therapeutic approach, conventional medicine could build on its present legitimacy, and thereby enhance its power to "HEAL."

Publication types

  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Attitude to Health
  • Complementary Therapies* / methods
  • Complementary Therapies* / standards
  • Delivery of Health Care, Integrated*
  • Evidence-Based Medicine* / methods
  • Evidence-Based Medicine* / standards
  • Health Services Accessibility
  • Holistic Health*
  • Humans
  • Patient-Centered Care
  • Qualitative Research
  • United States