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What is Complementary and Alternative Medicine?

Decisions about your health care are important, including the decision about whether or not to use complementary and alternative medicine.  Today, approximately 38% of adults are using complementary and alternative medicine (CAM) in pursuit of health and wellness.  Defining this field can be difficult because it is a field that consists of several different treatment categories and is constantly changing.

The National Center for Complimentary and Alternative Medicine (NCCAM) defines CAM as a group of diverse medical and health care systems, practices and products which are not usually considered part of conventional or Western medicine as we know it.  Conventional or Western medicine is medicine practiced by medical doctors (MD’s), doctors of osteopathic medicine (DO’s), and by allied health professionals such as physical therapists, registered nurses and psychologists.

To get a clearer picture of each I will discuss each one separately. Complementary medicine refers to the use of CAM along with conventional medicine.  For instance, using acupuncture in addition to physical therapy to treat and or alleviate pain.  Complementary medicine includes natural products, such as dietary supplements, herbs and probiotics, as well as mind and body practices, such as meditation, acupuncture, massage, chiropractic treatments and yoga.  This field can also include but is not limited to deep breathing exercises, guided imagery, hypnotherapy, progressive relaxation, qi gong, and tai chi (my personal favorite).

Alternative medicine refers to the use of CAM in place of conventional medicine.  In this instance the person may pursue Ayurveda (the traditional Hindu system of medicine which uses diet, herbal treatment and yogic breathing); Homeopathy (a system for the treatment of disease by minute doses of natural substances, that in a healthy person would produce symptoms of disease) or even Traditional Chinese medicine to name a few in place of conventional medicine.

Then, there is “Integrative Medicine” (IM) which combines treatments from conventional medicine and CAM for which there is some high quality evidence of safety and effectiveness.  Many Americans have never heard of integrative medicine, but this holistic movement has left its imprint on many of the nation’s hospitals, universities and medical schools.  Today, both doctors and patients alike are bonding with the philosophy of integrative medicine and its whole person approach to treatment; it is designed to treat the person, not just the disease.  The plan of care which is designed depends on the partnership between the patient and the doctor, and or healthcare provider, where the goal is to treat the mind, body and spirit, all at the same time.  While some of the therapies may be nonconventional, a guiding principle within integrative medicine is to use therapies that have some high quality evidence to support them.

With all the changes occurring in our healthcare system today and the ongoing research and breakthroughs in medicine; I think it is more important now than ever to be an informed consumer and fully accountable for your own health.  Gone should be the days when we leave our care in the hands of others, the time for accountability is now.  Here’s to your health!



By Being Latino Contributor, Maria G. Rodriguez, RN, BSN, CHHC,


About Adriana Villavicencio

Dr. Adriana Villavicencio is the youngest child of Ecuadorian immigrants. She has moved 29 times in her life, taking her on a journey from California to Bangalore, India, and New York City, where she recently earned a Ph.D. in Education Leadership and works as a Research Associate at New York University. An avid traveler, Adriana has collected experiences in four different continents and 16 different countries. But as a former high school English teacher, some of her fondest memories are those of her brilliant and brilliantly funny students in Brooklyn and Oakland. Adriana has contributed to several publications including the Daily News and, and is a managing editor for the Journal of Equity in Education. She earned a B.A. in English and an M.A. in English Education at Columbia University, and currently serves on the board of Columbia’s Latino Alumni Association (LAACU). She enjoys scary movies with red vines, Sauvignon Blanc, and her Maltese dog, Napoleon.

To learn more about Adriana’s education consulting company, please visit

Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this article are solely those of the author and should not be understood to be shared by Being Latino, Inc.

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