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What’s the difference between alternative and complementary healthcare?

Not a lot, you might think – I say complementary, you say alternative, but essentially we mean the same thing. Or do we? ‘Alternative’ implies a choice between two things, whilst ‘complementary’ suggests two things running in conjunction with one another. Thus ‘alternative healthcare’ means an entirely different approach to conventional medicine, whereas ‘complementary healthcare’ means treatments that can be used alongside conventional medicine. On closer examination, the meanings are significantly different, yet they are still seen as interchangeable, both in the media and the population at large. There are various reasons for this, but for now I want to address the most pernicious: the classification of a treatment or therapy made purely on the politics of the individual.


In contrast

There are some people who place their faith in the body’s ability to heal itself and believe that modern medicine isn’t as effective as it’s cracked up to be. They say that the drugs doctors prescribe cause more harm than good and they’re better off sticking with natural remedies. The problems with this alternative approach to healthcare are many and varied and I’ll look at them in more depth in later posts, but the argument that leaps front of mind first off is this: if natural remedies are so effective, why did so many people die of diseases like measles, cancer or chicken pox before modern medicine discovered things like antibiotics and chemotherapy?

In contrast, a complementary practitioner takes an altogether more pragmatic approach, accepting the vital role conventional medicine plays in treating disease and advocating the prescription of some natural remedies under certain circumstances. No sane person is going to claim that massage therapy can cure cancer, but to say that massage can alleviate the pain associated with cancer and its treatment is both reasonable and proven. Similarly, a person with a stroke may be treated conventionally with blood thinning drugs whilst also receiving acupuncture to facilitate their physical rehabilitation. In other words, complementary healthcare is appropriate in treating certain aspects of a particular condition, but not to the exclusion of conventional medicine which may be better placed to address other aspects of a disease.

If you’re in any doubt about the logic of this, watch this hilarious sketch by Mitchell and Webb who succinctly demonstrate the insanity of an alternative approach to healthcare.

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