What Is the Difference between Conventional and Alternative Medicine?

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  • Written By: Jillian O Keeffe
  • Edited By: Shereen Skola
  • Last Modified Date: 29 April 2020
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There are three main differences between the fields of conventional and alternative medicine. Conventional medicine relies primarily on studies of efficacy to base treatments on, compared to alternative treatments which tend not to require a high standard of scientific proof. Alternative practitioners typically look at the health of a patient as a whole as a basis for treatments, whereas conventional medical professionals often look only at the problem area of the body. Educational qualifications and licensing standards can also be of a higher rigor for conventional medical practitioners compared to alternative practitioners.

Conventional medicine is also called scientific medicine, because of the ways in which doctors choose the appropriate treatments for a patient. Clinical studies, which look at people with a certain problem and how a particular treatment benefits them, is the basis of conventional medicine. This method of checking if a treatment does work, and how well it does work, allows doctors to discard treatments that are not effective and put in place treatments that are more beneficial to the patient. Conventional and alternative medicine differ in that while alternative practitioners may put their treatments through the clinical study process, it is not an essential part of the process for choosing a treatment.

Examples of conventional medical practices include chemotherapy, surgeries and vaccinations. Alternative treatments include acupuncture, homeopathy and herbalism. Alternative therapies are technically those which people choose to undergo instead of a conventional treatment, whereas complementary therapies are those which patients opt for as well as conventional medical treatment.

One of the reasons a person may look at conventional and alternative medicine and choose the latter is that doctors tend to look primarily at the site of a problem in the body and may neglect the rest of the body. Alternative practitioners typically try to treat the whole body holistically. This can fit better into spiritual or philosophical ways of looking at illness and may also give the patient a feeling of more control over his or her body compared to a potentially more authoritarian approach by a conventional medical professional. Conventional and alternative medicine practitioners may also widely disagree as to the causes of illness, with conventional practitioners focusing on scientific research, whereas alternative practitioners may work on a concept such as energy fields or misaligned skeletal structures.

Generally, if an alternative medicine works efficiently, and can successfully pass through the clinical study process, it becomes part of conventional medicine. An example is medical marijuana, which although has a place in traditional herbal medicine, was not an approved medicine until it passed clinical studies and became more widely accepted in conventional medicine. As conventional medical professionals are wary of new treatments, until they can be proven safe and effective, doctors tend to trust the conventional medicines rather than alternative treatments. Potential dangers to alternative remedies include poisoning or bodily injury, or if the treatment doesn't work at all, the patient may suffer irreversible damage that could perhaps have been avoided with prompt conventional treatment. Typically, the risks of conventional options are well-known, as are the benefits.

As the field of alternative medicine contains so many differing practices, which often are not based on treatments that pass the rigors of clinical studies, regulation of the field by governmental bodies may be of a lower standard than conventional medical practitioners. Typically, a doctor or a nurse in a conventional medical system has to complete a high standard of education and become licensed in order to practice medicine, whereas an alternative practitioner may not have to comply with governmental standards at all, but rather adhere to guidelines set by an industry body.

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