Complementary & Alternative Medicine

What is CAM?

The term complementary medicine refers to therapies that are used in addition to conventional medicine, while the term alternative medicine is used to describe treatments that are used instead of conventional medicine. In the United States, CAM is sometimes defined as medical therapy that is not widely taught at American medical schools or is not generally available in US hospitals. This definition recently has become less clear because unconventional medicine is now taught by many medical schools and is available in some medical communities. Also, as clinical trials are done to evaluate the effectiveness of CAM therapies, some forms of CAM may eventually become components of conventional medicine.

CAM Therapies

CAM includes a vast number of therapies. Multiple models have been proposed for categorizing these diverse and often unrelated therapies. One of the most useful was developed by the National Institutes of Health (NIH). The NIH model for categorizing CAM therapies is as follows:

  • Biologically Based Therapies – Dietary supplements, diets, bee venom therapy, hyperbaric oxygen
  • Mind–Body TherapiesGuided imagery, hypnosis, meditation
  • Alternative Medical SystemsTraditional Chinese medicine,
    Ayurveda, homeopathy
  • Manipulative and Body-Based TherapiesChiropractic, reflexology, massage
  • Energy TherapiesTherapeutic touch, magnets

CAM-Related Studies

Several studies have documented that CAM is used frequently in the United States. One well-known large study was conducted in 1997 and was reported in medical literature in 1998 by Dr. David Eisenberg. In this study of more than 2,000 people, approximately 42% used some form of CAM. It was estimated that 629 million visits were made to practitioners of alternative medicine; this was greater than the number of visits to all primary care physicians in that year. Nearly 20% of people were taking some type of herb or vitamin along with a prescription medication. Most people used CAM without the supervision of a CAM practitioner, and most people did not discuss their use of CAM with their physicians. As a result, nearly half of the people were using CAM without the advice of a physician or a CAM practitioner. This demonstrates the need for increased communication in this area between patients and health care providers.

Several US studies indicate that the use of CAM continues to be relatively high and will be high in the future. A large analysis of CAM use in the US was conducted in 2002. In this survey, 50% of the general population had used some form of CAM. Another U.S. study found that for those born before 1945, about 30% of respondents used CAM. The percentage of CAM users rose to about 50% for those born between 1945 and1964, and was even higher, about 70%, for those born between 1965 and 1979. This study also found that nearly one-half of people who tried a specific form of CAM continued to use that CAM therapy more than 20 years later. Overall, this study indicates that CAM is not a short-lived phenomenon.