Bill is convinced that complementary therapies help him stay healthy. Susan swears by the alternative medicine she uses to maintain her health. When they sit down to talk, they find they are doing the same things-they just have different words for it.
Alternative medicine, complementary therapies, natural healthcare, integrative medicine--these are a few of the terms used nowadays to describe a wide array of healing practices that fall outside purely pharmaceutical or surgical treatments. Some examples are massage , meditation , and acupuncture .
A few years ago, complementary and alternative medicine was defined as therapies that were not taught in medical school or offered in mainstream hospitals. But this no longer applies. Many complementary and alternative therapies are now offered in clinics and hospitals around the country and their use and acceptance is growing rapidly. This is reflected in a new name used in many healthcare settings: "integrative therapies ."
But whether you say integrative therapies or alternative medicine, or something else, it refers to the same thing-a wide array of healing practices that fall outside purely pharmaceutical or surgical treatments.
A person could use these practices and therapies instead of conventional medicine, as an alternative. However, this is less common and may pose risks. It is not a good idea, for example, to abandon conventional cancer  treatment for a "miracle" botanical medicine . But it might make sense to see a massage  or healing touch  therapist while undergoing chemotherapy to help your body recuperate.
Thus we see these healing practices as complementary to conventional care and a key part of integrative healthcare.
We believe that the goal is to move toward integrative healthcare-where the best of both conventional therapies and healing practices are available to all, and providers from both work together for the best patient outcome.
This is already happening-many physicians and nurse practitioners now recommend botanical medicines  or chiropractic , for instance. And it will continue to grow as informed healthcare consumers demand the best of both worlds.
There are literally hundreds of types of healing practices, with new therapies or variations emerging continuously. This can make it a little overwhelming when you are first starting out.
Luckily, the National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine (NCCAM) , which is part of the National Institutes of Health, has grouped most of these therapies into five categories. Understanding the categories can help you identify the key characteristics of a particular practice or therapy.
It is very important to evaluate every part of an integrative healthcare plan, whether complementary or conventional, to determine if it is safe and effective.
In reality, it is nearly impossible to determine with 100% certainty whether any treatment or therapy is safe or effective for all people. So another way to look at this question is to examine the risks, benefits, and evidence. Ask the following questions and do some research to find good answers.
Risk: Is the therapy harmful? Just because something is natural does not mean that it is safe. There are many natural substances that are poisonous. A therapy may also put you at risk if it interferes with another treatment that you are receiving.
For example, people who have had organ transplants are required to take medicines that suppress their immune system for the rest of their life. St. John's Wort may interfere with these immunosuppressive drugs, thus putting the person at risk for rejecting their transplanted organ.
Benefit: What will the therapy or treatment do? Does it work? Will it be effective? How will it contribute to my overall health and wellbeing?
Evidence: How much evidence is there that a given treatment is safe (with little or no risk) and effective? Note that there is much debate about what constitutes evidence. Start by looking to see if there are rigorous scientific studies that have been conducted on the therapy for the proposed use.
Note also if there is anecdotal evidence accumulated because a treatment has been used for more than 5,000 years. Stories or anecdotes are generally not given the same weight as scientifically conducted studies, but experience and accumulated wisdom should not be ignored.
It is important for you to evaluate all three-risk, benefit, and evidence-and then determine if the therapy is right for you.